guest review: Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta, from Pops

My father wrote this up to convince me to read the book; but I liked it enough to share it here. He worried about spoilers: “There is also much to say about the story itself, but I didn’t take the time to puzzle over how to do it without spoiling such an unusual book.” But I think it’s a good review, and a good handling of that problem. Some book reviews are definitely harder to write than others! I think he’s talked me into this one, but not sure how soon it will come to the top of my considerable list. Here’s Pops.

First published in Finland in 2012, Wiki says she wrote it simultaneously in her native Finnish language and English; it is now out in English too (2014); she lives in England.

Set in the far off future: China rules Europe, including the Scandinavian Union, which is occupied by the police State of New Qian. Earth has been devastated by severe climate crisis and oil wars, coastal cities completely flooded, infrastructure destroyed by war and accessible fossil fuels depleted. From clever reuse, this impoverished future retains some basic technology like primitive solar power and handheld ‘pods’ that serve as both information source and text communication. Weapons are knives and sabers, with guns seldom used.

Water is an obsession; fresh sources are limited and controlled by the State; water is a form of currency in local barter economy, held and transferred in plastic ‘skins’ in constant need of repair since plastic is no longer produced. Plastic is the common form of reuse, as it has still not degraded; only its usage changes.

Noria Kaitio is the 17 year old daughter and apprentice of a master of tea ceremony, an ancient practice of orchestrated tea serving and contemplation intended for all comers, but in fact an indulgence of the affluent and powerful. Events and thoughts of the Masters of each teahouse have been recorded for centuries in old books. She has inherited her mother’s quest for knowledge; she’s an avid reader of the rare paper books her mother collects, in a world where the State seeks to control all knowledge, especially history.

Her close friend is Sanja Vanamo, same age, who lives in the village and cares for her mother and little sister Minja, who is sickly. Their friendship is very close, but with tension over status difference. Sanja’s family is poor and must scrounge for water; scarcity contributes to Minja’s illness. Sanja is clever and mechanically skilled; she scavenges in the ‘plastic grave’, the landfill of junk, and makes use of it in many ways.

Itäranta is a master of restrained, sensual language and contemplative narrative. The tea ceremony itself sets the tone for the book’s voice, told with Noria in close third person. As readers we are not hurried, and encouraged to savor what we have before us, in the moment. Water is a constant object and metaphor, often depicted as a force in itself, a bottomless well in Noria’s life. For her, water is a complete source of life-giving sustenance: physical, emotional, spiritual. Such passages are brief and concise, scattered amidst narrative that moves along at a deliberate pace, consistent with the leisurely pace of a tea ceremony.

The narrative follows Noria’s life as she is disrupted by constant change. She is sensitive but wise; she is unswerving in upholding her independence when gender roles threaten.

Sounds compelling, and with some unusual literary elements. Thanks for sharing, Pops.

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