Lyrical Empowerment: Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

I tried to describe Memory of Water to a few people in the days after I finished it. It was a bit of challenge that led to me falling back on tiresome comparisons. One example read, ‘it feels like the young adult novel I wanted Paolo Baciagalupi’s Shipbreaker to be.’ Or, ‘it’s like Rob Ziegler’s Seed if he cared a lot less about explody things.’ Or worst of all, ‘Emmi Itäranta creates a cocktail of The Hunger Games and The Windup Girl, with Susan Collins’ sense of character and Paolo Baciagalupi’s haunting image of our future.’ Bad, right?

Itäranta’s novel laughs at all these comparisons. Written simultaneously in both English and Finnish, Memory of Water is a lyrical and emotionally scarring novel of life in the indeterminate post-climate change future. Once a plentiful resource, water has become as tightly controlled by the government as nuclear material in the modern world. Wars are waged over it. In northern Europe, seventeen-year-old Noria Kaitio is learning to become a tea master like her father. It’s a position of great responsibility in their culture, one that affords them more water than anyone not affiliated with the government.

Both the tea ceremony’s significance within the culture and the country Noria inhabits being called New Qian imply that China has conquered Europe. It may be true, but Itäranta is disinterested in geopolitics or anything not relevant to Noria’s struggle to survive in her oppressed dystopian village. The larger world is interesting, fleshed out enough to make every detail pregnant with possibility, but remains only tangentially important to the narrative. While Memory of Water tackles challenging themes, it’s the tight focus on Noria’s situation, and her emotional responses to it, which renders the novel vivid and compelling.

Those emotional responses begin when Noria learns the secret her father has guarded his entire life. He alone knows the location of a hidden spring, passed down for generations from tea master to tea master. Knowledge of the spring means something different to Noria, or at least she thinks it does, as she’s forced to watch her best friend’s family suffer from water restrictions. How can one person keep such a big secret in the face of all these pressures?

This decision point is the root of the novel’s emotional punch. How do we know the decisions we make are the right ones? Should Noria sacrifice her future for the future of another? Memory of Water is a novel of decisions, of grasping life and giving it direction on your own terms and no other’s. This empowerment, combined with the deeply evocative first person narrative, is what makes Itäranta’s novel such a wonderful piece for younger readers. It doesn’t contrive to get adults out of the way so much as it demands that a young person be responsible for their fate.

Of course there is some heavy handed kvetching about climate change. A fair bit of finger pointing about the wasteful society we inhabit is par for the course in this kind of novel. It never strays beyond the needs of the story, remaining within a narrative focused more on the personal implications of the catastrophe than the underlying causes. This personal nature of the conflict is what separates it from the books I compared it to at the outset. Memory of Water isn’t worried about the future of the Earth or the people writ large who live on its surface. Itäranta cares only for Noria, the life she’ll be able to lead and the friends she’ll take with her.

She does this all amid brilliant, lyrical prose. Lyrical is a term often overused in describing prose. Quite literally it means that the author’s style is imaginative and beautiful, which is rather pat. I use it here to describe rhythm, the slightly repetitive words that drive the point home, a chorus before the next verse. Itäranta’s writing is almost a song, working like a melody that sticks in your head more than a series of words that flow by.

If there’s a weakness in the novel it’s that nothing is going anywhere with vigor. The result is a novel that meanders like a wooded creek, finding rocks to alter its course and making it bubble, before ending in a body of water with far greater potential. There’s more story to tell in Itäranta’s world, both about the how and why. Without these things it becomes less a science fiction than a literary character study with some odd parameters. Could this have been the story of a girl in desert culture, with no hints at our own imagined future? Most assuredly. Whether that detracts from the novel is a question for each reader to answer. For me, Noria’s journey was satisfying and poignant. Emmi Itäranta’s novel recalls a memory of what’s important, not only to survive, but to actually live.

Sometimes a review pales in comparison to the words of the author herself. If you really want to know what Memory of Water is about and whether you should read it, I find this passage sums the situation up quite well.

Most of the soil we walk on once grew and breathed, and once it had the shape of the living, long ago. One day someone who doesn’t remember us will walk on our skin and flesh and bones, on the dust that remains of us.


Memory of Water is available now from HarperCollins.

Justin Landon runs Staffer’s Book Review where his posts are less on-color. Find him on Twitter for meanderings on science fiction and fantasy, and to argue with him about whatever you just read.


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