The End of the Ocean by Maja Lunde
This novel is the second in the Klimakvartetten, or Climate Quartet. It follows on from Maja Lunde's History of Bees, which I will now be making a "beeline" for after reading The End of the Ocean.
The End of the Ocean alternates between two stories.
In 2017, Signe a "skinny old biddy" now 70, tells us of visiting her hometown in Norway after many years away, seemingly as an environmental activist. She sails alone into the fjord and steals twelve containers of glacial ice from a ship taking them to desert nations to be used as the exclusive ingredient in expensive drinks by the wealthiest of the wealthy. She seems intent on depositing this stolen treasure on the doorstep of the man, her lover when young but also the man who has made it his business to carve up the glaciers. As she carries out this plan and sails south, she revisits being a child caught between parents' tension and a young woman caught up in what turned out to be futile, environmental protests against the destruction of waterfall and a river to generate electricity. Her journey to the south of France is determined, solitary and is intent on confronting her past lover, despite the gap of fifty years.
In alternate chapters which leap forward to the future, David also tells his story. In 2041 David, and his young daughter, are separated from his wife and baby son, after a fire and political upheaval in a drought-stricken area of southern Europe. They flee to a refugee camp, and on a foray into the dry and dusty landscape discover a boat in an overgrown garden. Here is the link; this is Signe's boat, left at the end of her journey, twenty-four years before. The boat becomes a refuge from the hopelessness, and aimlessness of the camp and a focus for hope in an arid and parched landscape, as David comes to realise his wife and baby son are gone and he dreams of an escape on the boat to the ocean.
The prose is spare, matter-of-fact and light on descriptive detail but still we feel Signe's single-minded focus despite the aching of her body and the cold and damp of the small boat on the rolling grey ocean and we feel David teetering on the brink of despair and struggling to cope with the loss of family, the hunger and the thirst and uncertainty as he masks his fear mostly for the sake of his little girl. As a reader, I cared about these characters: the stubborn, uncompromising but still very hurt Signe battling to save the natural world; David who digs deep to survive for the sake of his daughter, and ashamed of his own need for comfort in sex; and the bright, inquisitive, courageous , honest and hopeful child. I cared about Signe, whose loneliness was a consequence of her own decisions and about David and Lou, more victims of circumstance but still with choices to make about how to live in a situation of uncertainty. I wanted them all to find peace.
As the two strands of the novel move forward and weave together, water is integral to the stories : water as rivers diverted, glaciers carved up, as oceans on which to move away from human exploitation, water so scarce in a drought as to dry up canals, and parch farm land, to be desalinated, measured and rationed to quench thirst, water as rainfall to fill the wells, green the fields and to fill the canal, as a conduit for the boat, and as a promise for the future.
I found the ending of both strands of this novel particularly haunting; the power of hope and the strength of the human spirit give meaning and dignity to the lives of these individuals. Our choices as individuals may not be how we can change the world, but in how we respond to events and situations that we find ourselves in.
Finishing on an open-ended note, the characters and the situations lingered in my mind well past the last page. The effect of climate change, the necessity of water for human life and the human effect on the world's landscape are all questions raised after reading, making it one of those books that needs to be mulled over and to be talked about.
This novel addresses future and global problems, but through the stories of individuals. In both capacities, it is a highly recommended read.
Reviewer: Clare Lyon
Simon & Schuster, RRP: $37.99