“Sydney was threatened by total isolation, all the roads closed, cut off on all sides by the flames, when ash rained down and the sun turned red and we lived under orange skies.” Real and present dangers permeate Madeleine Watts’s debut The Inland Sea. It is a highly topical novel – the quote above refers to the Sydney fires of 1994 but resonates with current woes – that cleverly juxtaposes ecological disaster past, present and impending with the personal crisis of the narrator.
It is hard to say who is more in trouble, the planet at large or our unnamed narrator, a literature student and aspiring writer who chooses to put her postgrad studies on hold: “My supervisor hummed, and conceded, when I pointed out how neurotically inarticulate and exhausted I had become, that it might be best to wait a year.” Looking back on this period from some not-too-distant future point, the voice is self-aware, reflective, intelligent: “This was a time in my life when it was difficult to stop drinking once I’d started … part of me believed that if I went on and on, past the point where my legs lost their coordination, when the syllables of words crumbled in my mouth, and my thoughts escaped the prison of coherence, then I would come out on the other side of the black-out into a new world. Maybe not better than the one I’d left, but new, and just for me.”
Watts joins the ranks of authors such as the late Jade Sharma, Jen Beagin and Ottessa Moshfegh – brave female writers who mine their own lives and the lives of their characters to create searing, insightful debuts – but she sets her novel apart by including a historical narrative of an early 19th-century British explorer, John Oxley, who travelled across the wilderness of central Australia in search of water, the inland sea of the title. Centuries later the search is still on, though the journey of the narrator (his descendant) seems even more nebulous: a search for meaning.
If Oxley’s search is one of hubris, ambition and courage, the narrator’s is defined by fear: of repeating the past, of turning into her violent, alcoholic father, or the opposite, as she sees it – becoming a victim like her mother. The narrator’s taste in men is woeful: a short-lived relationship with the pompous Lachlann, a fellow writer who uses her to the point of caricature, followed by a string of sexual encounters with strangers. (To call them one-night stands would be overly romantic.)
Enlivening the self-destruction is the narrator’s job as an operator at Triple Zero, a company that connects callers to emergency services. Vivid mini-narratives from callers in trouble give great pace to the novel: “I took calls from angry drivers, an old man with chest pains, a white woman who didn’t like the look of the brown boys on the corner, teenagers fucking around after school, a woman hiding from her ex-boyfriend under the bed, and a mother whose baby had turned blue.” Callers abuse her, accuse her and perhaps worst of all, traumatise her when they go silent. She ends up “afraid of just about everything” and with the unshakeable insight that emergency comes for everyone, no matter what they do.
Structurally, there are some issues with the book, with jumps between past lives and present relationships lacking finesse. Her obsession with Lachlann, and his obsession with her red hair, gets tedious, particularly as the man is such a loser. Her interactions with his new girlfriend, Cate, are more enlightening – tense conversations that are layered with guilt and second-guessing.
Fear then anger
Watts grew up in Sydney and has lived in New York since 2013. She has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and her fiction has been published in The White Review and The Lifted Brow. Her novella Afraid of Waking It was awarded the 2015 Griffith Review Novella Prize, and her non-fiction has appeared in The Believer and the Los Angeles Review of Books. In The Inland Sea, she writes brilliantly on identity and the female body. In her narrator's stasis and penchant for self-destruction, there are overtones of older literature – Kate Chopin's The Awakening, for one.
From the captivating opening section that considers the effects of a venomous snake bite – "Blurred vision, numb throat, a prickle in the soles of the feet, and then a burst of pain in every cell of your body" – to the narrator's increasingly macabre preoccupation with dead women (among them, though unnamed, the Irish woman Jill Meagher, who was murdered in Melbourne in 2012), anger replaces fear as the narrative progresses. Through all the emergency calls the narrator fields, she realises there is an underlying prejudice against women: if they're hurt, they asked for it. The Inland Sea is at heart an inquiry into hostile climates and our slim chances of survival.