“Water is the most versatile of all elements. It isn’t afraid to burn in fire or fade into the sky, it doesn’t hesitate to shatter against sharp rocks in rainfall or drown into the dark shroud of the earth. It exists beyond all beginnings and ends. On the surface nothing will shift, but deep in underground silence, water will hide and with soft fingers coax a new channel for itself, until stone gives in and slowly settles around the secret space.”
Memory of Water is the debut of Finnish writer Emmi Itäranta. She wrote the book simultaneously in Finnish and English, while studying creative writing at the University of Kent, making both versions the original. I read the book in Finnish with the title Teemestarin kirja (The Tea Master’s book).
The story is set in the north of the Scandinavian Union, (near Kuusamo) several hundreds of years in the future, when the oceans have claimed much of the land and sweet water is running out. The area is part of New Qian, suggesting that China occupies what was once the Nordic countries. The main character, Noria, is training to be a tea master, and is the latest to inherit a secret her ancestors have kept for hundreds of years; there is a hidden source of water in the area. But as people get more desperate for water, and the military become tougher against water crimes Noria’s secret becomes more difficult to keep. And should she keep it? Is it right that she has access to more than enough water while the village suffers? Meanwhile she also begins to discover an old and dangerous secret from the Twilight Century.
The Twilight Century separates our world from the world of Noria. It is the time when a lot of knowledge was lost, leaving Noria and her friend Sanja marveling at the discovery of a tape recorder in an old garbage dump. This is not to say that the future lacks technology. Solar power is commonly used and people can communicate via devices similar to smart phones, but technology seems limited to necessities rather than being used for entertainment and the forgotten technology of the past is mysterious.
Noria’s world is a harsh one with dry dusty ground and she dreams back to the past-world where water was plentiful and even manifested as snow and ice. While the focus is on the life of Noria and those near her, the lesson for our generation is not lost on the reader. The plea on behalf of future generations is particularly strong in this piece about the people of the past:
“I have tried not to think about them, but their past-world bleeds into our present-world, into its sky, into its dust. Did the present-world, the world that is, ever bleed into theirs, the world that was? I imagine one of them standing by the river that is now a dry scar in our landscape, a woman who is not young or old, or perhaps a man, it doesn’t matter. Her hair is pale brown and she is looking into the water that rushes by, muddy perhaps, perhaps clear, and something that has not yet been is bleeding into her thoughts.
I would like to think that she turns around and goes home and does one thing differently that day because of what she has imagined, and again the day after, and the day after that.”
The Memory of Water is not an dystopian adventure novel for young adults (as sometimes advertised), but rather a slowly unfolding story without much action. I don’t think fans of The Hunger Games and similar books would necessarily enjoy it, and I have read some disappointed reviews from people who expected something quite different. It is written in a delicate poetic prose, with plenty of philosophical musings about the meaning of water in our lives. It is a book for people who enjoy a good well conceived dystopia but also for people who do not generally enjoy speculative fiction, but like a beautiful and thoughtful story.
PS. This book would have fit well into an earlier post I wrote: Stories of The Flood – 3 novels about the future.