20 books of summer (2021), 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Madeleine Watts, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting

‘The Inland Sea’ by Madeleine Watts

Fiction – Kindle edition; Pushkin; 256 pages; 2021.

Madeleine Watts’ debut novel, The Inland Sea, has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It’s yet another (fashionable) coming-of-age story about a troubled young woman grappling with the complexities of the modern world — think Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan, Niamh Campbell, Sophie Hardcastle et al —albeit with a distinctive Australian twist.

This one marries personal accountability with ecological disaster, misogyny and sexual agency.

There are recurrent themes about the foolishness of colonial exploration (in search of the rumoured inland sea, hence the book’s title) and uses the mining and exploitation of the Australian landscape as a metaphor for the ways in which women continue to be dominated and used. Which is a roundabout way of saying this is not a novel about navel-gazing: it looks at the bigger picture and puts the central character’s life into a societal and historical context — and is all the more rewarding for it.

Life in a call centre

Set in Sydney, The Inland Sea charts a year in the life of an unnamed narrator with red hair who is striking out on her own after graduating from university. She takes a job as an emergency call dispatcher — “Emergency, police, fire or ambulance?” — and discovers that the outside world is a very dangerous place. She puts emergency calls through to the relevant first responders for everything from domestic violence incidents to car accidents, bush fires to heart attacks.

I had always been told that cars were more dangerous than planes, and had never really taken the idea seriously, but the first weeks at Triple Zero taught me to reconsider their dangers. Cars flipped over. They started smoking. They ran down children. They veered off the road, they smashed through houses in the middle of the night. They poisoned their passengers. I did not know how to drive, but if I had, I would have stopped. The calls made me walk along footpaths as far away from the road as I possibly could.

Her own life is full of emergencies, too, including, but not limited to, an unplanned pregnancy, chlamydia, anemia, low liver function and a tendency to blackout from drinking too much alcohol. Against her better judgement, she is also sleeping around and having a rather lust-filled affair with the boyfriend of a friend, and part of her hopes they are discovered, if only so things are out in the open.

A climate emergency

This tendency towards self-destructive behaviour is told in parallel with an ecological emergency that is unfolding in Australia — extreme weather events are occurring more frequently, there are bushfires raging and even an earthquake.

The news said that January was of hottest-ever days and broken records, 123 by the end of the season. Some days, the heat was so powerful that people died simply sitting in their own homes. The newspapers had started calling it the “Angry Summer”.

And further to this, terrible things are happening to women. There are references to notorious murders, including Gillian Meagher, who was raped and murdered while walking home from a pub in Melbourne in 2012, and the narrator is becoming increasingly aware of the sheer number of domestic violence incidents she must respond to in her call centre job.

This dovetails seamlessly with her own experience of domestic violence as a child. While the reader is spared any specific detail, we get an overall picture of her mother living in fear of her husband and then taking drastic steps to whisk away her daughter to a place of safety, of her father being unhappy about it and then moving south to Melbourne, rarely to be seen again.

Life on the edge

While the book doesn’t have a strong plot, it sustains interest through the narrator’s experiences, her tendency to live life on the edge, her seeming inability to take care of herself and flashbacks to her childhood. Interleaved with this very personal storyline, are anecdotes about John Oxley, a 19th-century colonial explorer, who went in search of an interior body of water but never found it, which adds interest. Occasionally, some aspects — about history, ecology and news events — do feel a bit shoehorned in, but this is a minor criticism.

On the whole, The Inland Sea is an eloquently written story about finding refuge in a world teetering on the brink of catastrophe, one that highlights the chaos and fear around us, but demonstrates that we all need to take personal responsibility for our own actions and our own safety. It’s a powerful read.

This is my 13th book for #AWW2021 and my 4th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it shortly after it was longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award because it sounded like something I would enjoy.

15 thoughts on “‘The Inland Sea’ by Madeleine Watts”

    1. I was expecting it to be more navel gazing millennials moaning about their love lives and lack of career prospects (I think I’ve read one too many of these lately) but was pleasantly surprised it was more widescreen than that.

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  1. LOL It sounds exhausting.
    I suppose you would develop a sense of catastrophe if you worked in an emergency services call centre… I had a friend who worked with suicidal girls at a mental health facility, and she was hyper alert to signs of sexual abuse. We used to read the same books and she would always see it in the books we shared and I didn’t!

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    1. The thing that’s most amazing about the role of emergency dispatcher is the sheer absence of any kind of formal training or counselling despite having to deal with a lot of traumatic events. The narrator begins to see the world differently after she’s exposed to so many horrible things on the phone. She needs the money so she keeps doing it, but loads of her colleagues fall by the wayside because they can’t cope. I’m assuming the book is written from firsthand knowledge and, if that’s the case, I find it a bit shocking that they’re just expected to cope with everything mentally.

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      1. It would surprise me if there’s no training. Workers compensation claims for PTSD would make them provide it, if for no other reason. Support services are tucked away in all kinds of places where you wouldn’t know it, unless you had a personal connection. One of my BILs was a doctor employed by the railways to help drivers when there had been a suicide on the line. It was a full-time job too, which you might not expect…

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        1. Oh yes, I know about the docs for train drivers and suicides (or “one unders” as they’re known on London’s tube line.) I had a friend who was a train driver in Essex and some of the stories she told were horrific. Those drivers get paid big money but I reckon they deserve it.

          Perhaps the character in this book didn’t know there was access to counselling … I know I was concerned that she was just left to
          cope on her own. No debriefs after particularly traumatic calls, for instance. I’m intrigued to know whether this story is semi-autobiographical…

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          1. Yes, it would be interesting to know…
            (A-hem) there’s a famous contemporary case of a woman who experienced a traumatic event. She says she wasn’t offered help; others say she was; and still others say that sometimes people aren’t ready to accept help in the early stages because they’re too traumatised so they refuse it, and/or they don’t ‘hear it’ when it’s offered. (I’ve seen this happen myself, in two different contexts. Both said they didn’t hear advice being given although I was present and witnessed it myself.)
            This is why fiction is so good at exploring trauma, it doesn’t have to depict what’s ‘true’ while vividly representing events.

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          2. Ah yes, and I sometimes wonder whether people turn down help, whether consciously or not, because they see it as an admission of weakness.

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          3. I think it’s something more primitive and physiological than that. When The Offspring (in his 20s and very sporty unlike his mother!) mushed his knee almost beyond repair, the specialist told him he would never play rugby or most other sports again. He told me himself afterwards when we were talking about it in the car, that he just didn’t hear anything that was said to him after that. Nothing at all, and yet he appeared to anyone who didn’t know him well to be functioning ok. I think the shock sends a rush of adrenalin to the brain, or something similar, and it stops the brain from functioning in the normal way.
            The specialist was brilliant BTW and he turned out to be wrong. The Offspring completed the Melbourne to Warrnambool bike race twice, and plays ice hockey!

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