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.

2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Literary prizes

The 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist

The shortlist for the 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award was announced yesterday. It’s a strange mix of mainly new-to-me authors writing about diverse — and topical — subjects, including illegal immigration, immigration and environmental disaster.

As per usual, I have only read one title on this list — Amanda Lohrey’s rather beautiful and contemplative novel, Labyrinth — but there’s a couple here (The Rain Heron and The Inland Sea) that are already on my TBR and which I might read as part of #20BooksofSummer.

Here are the nominees in alphabetical order by author’s surname. The summaries are from the Miles Franklin website. I’ve included availability information for international readers where possible:

Amnesty by Aravind Adiga (Pan Macmillan)
Danny – Dhananjaya Rajaratnam – is an illegal immigrant in Sydney having fled Sri Lanka. For three years he’s been trying to create a new identity for himself, but then one morning he learns a female client of his has been murdered. Should Danny come forward with knowledge he has about the crime and risk getting deported, or saying nothing? Over the course of a single day, he must wrestle with his conscience and decide if a person without rights still has responsibilities.
This book is available in the UK and USA in paperback and ebook editions.

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing)
Robbie Arnott’s second novel is equal parts horror and wonder, and utterly gripping. Ren lives alone on the remote frontier of a country devastated by a coup. High on the forested slopes, she survives by hunting and trading – and forgetting. But when a young soldier comes to the mountains in search of a local myth, Ren is inexorably drawn into an impossible mission.
This book is available in the UK and USA in paperback and ebook editions.

At the Edge of the Solid World by Daniel Davis Wood (Brio Books)
In a village in the Swiss Alps, a husband and wife find their lives breaking apart following the death of their firstborn. On the other side of the world, in their hometown of Sydney, a man commits an act of shocking violence that captures international attention. As the husband recognises signs of his own grief in both the survivors and the perpetrator, his fixation on the case feeds into insomnia, trauma and an obsession with the terms on which we give value to human lives.
This book does not appear to be published outside of Australia.

The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey (Text Publishing)
This deeply meditative book follows Erica Marsden, who, in a state of grief, retreats to a quiet hamlet near the prison where her son, an artist, has been imprisoned for homicidal negligence. Living in a rundown shack, she obsesses over creating a labyrinth by the ocean. To build it, Erica will need the help of strangers. This is a hypnotic story of guilt and denial as well as a meditation on how art can be both ruthlessly destructive and restorative.
This book is available in the UK and USA in ebook format.

Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos (Pan Macmillan)
The book centres around Lucky, a second-generation Chicago-born clarinet-playing Greek man who finds himself in wartime Australia in the ’40s, escaping service by impersonating “king of swing” Benny Goodman. Lucky comes into money through personal tragedy and uses it to run a successful franchise of cafe diners. Spanning decades, this unforgettable epic tells a story about lives bound together by the pursuit of love, family, and new beginnings.
This book does not appear to be published outside of Australia.

The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts (Pushkin Press)
This debut novel is about coming of age in a dying world and exploring our capacity for harming ourselves, each other and the world around us. Facing the open wilderness of adulthood, our young narrator finds that the world around her is coming undone. She works part-time as an emergency dispatch operator, tracking the fires and floods that rage across Australia during an increasingly unstable year. Drinking heavily, sleeping with strangers, she finds herself wandering Sydney’s streets late at night as she navigates a troubled affair with an ex-lover. Reckless and adrift, she begins to contemplate leaving.
This book is available in the UK and USA in hardcover and ebook editions.

The winner of the $60,000 prize will be named on 15 July, which doesn’t leave that much time to read the entire shortlist, if that’s what you plan on doing!

You can read the official press release here. And read what The Guardian has to say about it here.

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest?