Books and reading

A sad and haunting tale of our near futures: ‘Wolfe Island’ by Lucy Treloar

This is the second of Lucy Treloar’s novels I have read and it’s an eerie, brooding tale of environment, home, family and a society on the edge of catastrophe. Her first novel, Salt Creek, was also an exploration of the way humans and the environment interact, but it was set in a different place and time: South Australia’s Coorong region in the 1800’s. Wolfe Island begins on a fictional island in Chesapeake Bay on the east coast of the USA. Time-wise, it is sometime in the future – though a not too distant future, as there is much that is recognisable and familiar.

The opening of Wolfe Island introduces us to Kitty Hawke, whose forebears have lived on the island since the 1600’s, but who is now the last inhabitant there. The reason? Wolfe Island is being consumed by rising sea levels and salt infestation, with houses and docks tumbling into the sea and large segments of the island already submerged. Kitty is unperturbed by her isolation. She is an artist who collects items and objects she finds along the shore line or dredges out of the mud, to create sculptures that she calls ‘makings.’ Her urge to create is intense and not to be ignored. She lives with some guilt that she left her two children and partner to live on the mainland while she returned to live alone on the island, apart from Girl, a wolfdog and long time companion. Otherwise, she is content.

This all changes on the day her granddaughter arrives in a small boat, in the midst of a storm and fleeing from unstated dangers. With Cat is her boyfriend Josh, another young man Luis, and Luis’ young sister Alejandra. Kitty understands that Luis and his sister are ‘runners’ – in this world there are many such people escaping from injustice, environmental havoc, or the law. It’s not stated explicitly but we understand that the pair are what would be termed ‘aliens’ in the US – illegal immigrants coming in across the US-Mexican border. They have already experienced horror and trauma in their young lives which is revealed slowly throughout the novel.

Part one of the novel is about Kitty, her deep relationship with the island and her art, and the world changing around her. She must learn to accommodate the newcomers and in doing so she grows to care deeply about them and will do anything to protect them. So much so, that in part two, Kitty herself becomes a ‘runner’ as the little group seek safety up north – again not specified, but very reminiscent of the paths taken by slaves seeking freedom in Canada in the nineteenth century. This section of the book feels like a road trip / adventure tale, with dangers (both human and environmental) at every turn. Part three sees Kitty back where she began, trying to create a home that feel right, and coping with memories and competing feelings of guilt and justification for actions she took to protect those she cares about.

The book is a deep dive into human behaviour, the bonds of family and friendship, and what it means to have a home. The environmental theme is strong, of course, and I was impressed by the way the author illustrates the sometimes contradictory and unhelpful ways that humans respond to threat. Much of it feels very familiar indeed:

There was nothing new in worrying about crops and vegetable gardens, but people had always paid more attention to the island being whittled away. Seawater coming up your hallway is disconcerting, I suppose…Islanders watched the tattered shores and kicked at them and said, ‘She’ll turn around again, just you wait. It’s always been changeable. (p 50)

It was like a dream. People prefer to live like this, ignoring the things that might wake them, as if ignorance might force the world into returning to its proper course. (p130)

What do you do when everything falls apart? You gather up the people you love and the few things you hold dear, and all the rest? You let it fall away. (p184)

There are beautiful descriptions of place: the birds, plants, wildlife of the island and the landscapes the little group travel through on their search for safety. One of the strengths of this book is the way the physical and emotional states of place and people reflect and affect each other. The disintegrating island is a wonderful metaphor for a society that, despite pockets of kindness, goodwill and generosity, has allowed the worst of human nature to rise up, leading to the disintegration of the human world as well. Girl, Kitty’s beloved wolfdog, is a companion but also a strong link to the wildness of the world outside Kitty’s home. That wildness is one of the reasons Kitty loves the dog so much.

Here is an example of the richness of language in Wolfe Island :

I heard everything there as clear as if I’d been half deaf before: the thin call of a gull, the whistle of a kite, the wind sounding like rain in the grasses. I might sit for a morning, watch the clouds, feel the wind on my left cheek, and how it shifted by noon, the way the clouds shadowed the sun and I shivered, insects going to ground, birds plunging to trees, everything but weather growing still and watchful, and without a thought I went into the house with Girl at my side and secured the windows and watched the storm. This was my world and I was its. I wished for nothing else. But life does not go on in the same way. Sometimes the world is a blizzard-filled snow globe. Things happen in the shaking and the settling. (p287)

For me, the most thought provoking parts of the novel were those that prompted me to reflect on what it means to be human, in all its messiness and loveliness. Certainly, there are echoes of many current global concerns throughout this book: climate change, the huge cost to individuals, nations and the planet of the vast movements of refugees across the earth, whether due to environmental, political or religious factors.

It’s a beautiful, sombre book and I recommend it.

Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar, published by Picador, 2019

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