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.