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Book Review: Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

Thursday, April 30, 2015 - 12:45

I picked this novel to read for a somewhat atypical reason: I'm pre-supporting the bid to bring WorldCon to Helsinki in 2017 and thought it might be a good idea to read some Finnish SFF. Memory of Water was getting some positive buzz so I decided to check it out. The story was written by the author simultaneously in Finnish and English (rather than being an after-the-fact translation) and has a lyrical, dream-like, poetic style. The action takes place in a post-climate-apocalypse Finland where today's geography has been greatly altered by both rising sea levels and shifting political hegemonies that have brought a dictatorial Chinese-origin government to power. Safe, pure drinking water is a scarce and rationed resource and "water crimes" are addressed with ruthless punishment. In a context where sweet water is at a premium, the protagonist Noria's family profession of ceremonial Tea Master (from the Japanese tradition) might seem not merely anachronistic but oddly luxurious. The fact that their clientele include ranking members of the military occupation creates an intersection of privilege and peril. Water is the pervasive theme of the story. In the most obvious terms: the daily struggle of Noria and her neighbors to secure enough water for their needs without overtly overstepping the law. The secret that Noria's family protects that brings her into conflict with both those neighbors and the law. And then there's the mystery of what happened to the water of the past and whether the official story of scarcity should be taken at face value. But more than that, water becomes the metaphor for Noria's path through life. Not, as it turns out, the relentless force of water to wear away mountains and scour valleys, but the flow of water to fill itself into whatever container is presented. For Noria is oddly and unsatisfyingly passive as a protagonist. The ventures she makes with her close friend Sanja to explore the mysteries of the past feel accidental and directionless (and, ultimately, vain). Even that friendship doesn't feel like a driving force in her life (or in Sanja's) but rather something they have flowed into and can flow out of just as easily. Noria rarely seems to act from principle, but rather from habit and tradition and--when pushed to it--from guilt. I fear that in some ways my take on this book is poisoned by the relentless message of U.S. dystopian fiction that lone protagonists should take up direct action against the oppressive regime and make their mark on the world. (And I am concerned that this is such a US-centric take on the genre that I'm not letting the story stand on its own merits.) Noria's story is, perhaps, far more realistic than that one, but realistic stories of ordinary people who bring only ordinary resistance and come to ordinary fates don't make for gripping reading. The language is beautiful. The world-building is vivid and intriguing. But the characters and story...just didn't do it for me. I feel pity for Noria, but not sympathy.