Review: Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta

Memory of WaterIn a future of our world where the polar ice caps have melted, and the maps have been redrawn as nations disappear under salt waves, potable water has become a scarce resource, and the citizens of the New Qian-ruled Scandinavian Union thrive — barely — on desalinated water rationed by the government. The penalties for water crimes are harsh; for concealing and tapping a fresh spring, they are deadly. Noria Kaitio’s family have guarded the spring for generations, and when Noria turns 17, her father, the village tea master, brings her into the secret of its maintenance as he prepares to inaugurate her as the next tea master.

Memory of Water is one of my favourite things: A novel in which the setting is, if not yet apocalyptic, certainly trending that way, but the tale told is an intimate one. This is not about humanity’s grand escape from the brink of annihilation. It’s about a young woman and her family and how they preserve civility in a culture where it is constantly threatened by desperation. The secret of the spring and the decisions that have to be taken to preserve it are important, but equally important is the role of tea master, of the elaborate rituals preserving peace and politeness, of providing the luxury and companionship of the tea house. This is a world where every cup is precious, and the tea masters elevate the partaking of it into something precious as well.

We don’t get to see a lot of how this world came to be, because much of that story is lost to the people living in it as well, so the world beyond the village is painted in broad strokes. The fusion of Chinese and Finnish culture, along with the preoccupation with water brought about by the times, would be fascinating to see more of, but a more detailed approach might have cost the novel some of the ethereality which contrasts so movingly with the desperation of the circumstances it describes. When it is showcased, though, it leads to such striking imagery as the Moonfeast and the Ocean-Dragons.

I didn’t find the message at all heavy-handed. It’s obvious that you cannot write a novel about a water-starved future without the consequences of global warming becoming starkly clear, but the author doesn’t bang the drum, the tone being mournful rather than urgent. This is a future where the battle is lost, and the people of that future give us about as much consideration as we’re giving them. Certainly compared to novels like The Windup Girl or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Capitol trilogy, the didacticism is light.

I found Noria most interesting in her relationships with others. We’re treated to a lot of her inner self, but internally I found her difficult to relate to until the end drew near, as she has an emotional distance that’s not unfitting. She’s like one of those people who, even in the peak of health, seems to be in the process of dying, and whose life is primarily a sequence of letting go. In this, she’s the ideal representative of the humanity of her time. One of the reasons I really liked her friendship with Sanja is because Sanja seemed to spark moments of life back into her, despite her own troubles, just by being present. At the Moonfeast, for a moment, they get to lay aside this ruined world and just be girls, and it’s as beautiful as Ocean-Dragons. Another is the way they encompassed the realistic strain of a friendship involving poverty and comparative wealth, which here is the illicit wealth of water, but didn’t let it tear them apart even though the world around them might.

Emmi Itäranta’s prose alone makes the book a treat to read. It’s delicate and sublime, and the whole work feels laced with sorrow. It’s all the more impressive that Itäranta wrote the manuscript in two languages — she penned both the Finnish and English editions of the novel. That this is also her debut novel in both languages makes it a stunning accomplishment.

Memory of Water has earned its place on my favourites shelf, and I’ll be awaiting the author’s next work with great interest.

5 stars

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