The stereotypical dystopian film and novel, such as A Clockwork Orange or 1984, presents a dark, violent, dysfunctional world with humans under the thumb of an oppressive regime. Memory of Water, the debut novel from Finnish author Emmi Itäranta, adds an extra dimension to her dystopia, a drying Earth where fresh water is protected by secrets and violating the government’s right to control water resources can get you executed. The Earth’s changing climate is as tyrannical as the military government in Itäranta’s story, and as deadly.
The story is simple and straightforward: Noria Kaitio, the 17-year-old daughter of a master in an ancient line of tea ceremony practitioners, is about to graduate into the family business. Her gruff, but loving father shows her the family secret, a freshwater spring hidden from the local village and the military, which controls all water resources. Her father dies and her emotionally distant mother departs the village, and Noria must decide whether to protect her secret and her own future, or reveal it to relieve a crisis in the village.
I’ve always loved films and books from Scandinavian countries for their moody atmospherics, and Itäranta does not disappoint. Her style is light, almost contemplative, even as the inevitable consequences of Noria’s choice bear down on her. The primary color of Memory of Water is blue: the blue of a Scandinavian sky, the blue of sky reflected on water, and the blue of the circle painted on the doors of water law breakers. But blue does not describe Noria’s mood. She is remarkably serene as her world falls apart.
Memory of Water is described in some quarters as science fiction or speculative fiction. Itäranta writes for a teen audience (“young adult” in the publishing trade), but her book shouldn’t be compared with novels in the vein of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, with its gee-whiz tech and Hollywood-style conflicts typical of mainstream science fiction in English. Memory of Water’s technology has a light footprint. The focus is on the people who live in Itäranta’s world. They are victims of their neighbors’ and humanity’s thoughtlessness and greed.
Itäranta wrote Memory of Water in English as well as Finnish, and her story won Finland’s Kalevi Jäntti Literary Prize for young authors in 2012. No work is without flaws; Noria’s village appears to be devoid of young men for whom she shows an interest or show an interest in her. That doesn’t ring true for a 17-year-old protagonist, male or female. And Itäranta tantalizes readers with hints at revealing the “how-we-got-here” background, but she doesn’t deliver. Itäranta says she has no plans for a sequel, so readers may never know what Noria discovered in old documents. Nonetheless, Memory of Water is worthy of any number of American literary prizes. And the hope that the novel might show up on the big screen makes me salivate.
Note: I received an advance proof copy, which I requested from the publisher.