Unsheltered by Clare Moleta (Scribner, 2021), 242pp, $35
From its comfortless Grapes of Wrath epigraph to its acknowledgement in the endpapers of the Whadjuk Noongar people, this novel is unforgiving, underpinned by fear and grief that are not solely personal but species-borne; and yet it also lifts us with its glimmers of social connection, and speeds us along as if on dust-red wings.
Suffering no illusions about what a world that continues to careen into climate crisis will be like, Unsheltered also keeps the reader gripped by its alternately guttering and reigniting candle of hope, as the narrative follows the unpredictable knife-edge luck of its protagonist, the unsentimental and enormously pragmatic survivor, Li.
Li lives on her wits and training as she undertakes a desperate, mainly solitary quest to track her young daughter Matti across a fictionalised, futuristic continent that combines aspects of contemporary Australia and other nations. Li is a mother who fears she was never cut out for the role. She has twisting regrets about some aspects of her parenting and yet is also propelled by abiding love and an innate moral responsibility for her child, despite the profound loss and abandonment she carries from her own past, and despite a future with swiftly thinning prospects.
The novel’s opening scene of rainfall might carry a sweet joy with an erotic edge, but the giddy desire and relief for the characters are rapidly undercut, lasting barely a page before the consequences of the swing from one extreme season to another detonate irreversibly through their lives.
The context Moleta creates for her characters is one of implacable forces. The social structures and living conditions are referred to in monolithic abstracts: Wars, Agency, Source, XB (for External Border), Company and Weather. This last lumps together everything from tornadoes to floods and fires in an argot that is at once down-under laconic and ominously Biblical, and which in its almost innocent shorthand also expresses submission and bewilderment, the sense of little people reduced in the face of powers that only ever seem obscure, cruel and irrational.
Some of this ‘alternative world’ language, and the sensation of being thrust right into its rules and restrictions in media res, together can make the reading pace hectic and jagged. At times, although events hurtled on inexorably, I snagged on the unfamiliar: the mechanics of the social fabric are inferred rather than explained. Yet this also has the positive mimetic effect of creating a sense of strain, of not quite knowing how to handle foreign systems. It places the reader in the same kind of alienated, groping mental space that the characters experience: guessing at how the authorities function, what the ways in or around the rules might be, what the fragments of information about XB, Company or Serkel might mean, and how to alter responses and actions accordingly.
A small yet crucial aspect of style—the lack of speech marks—made me think about how these usually offer a notion of agency, differentiation and even switches in energy; they signal little shifts in attention and focus, help us to divide up our perception of the fictional universe. Without them, the style conveys something of the uncontrolled stream of events; and certainly, before I adapted to their absence it felt as if the prose embodied something of the blind panic, the overwhelm from the onslaught of disaster.
The fascistic totalitarian overtones of Australia’s contemporary refugee policy are dialled up in the novel to present a society starkly divided between the people who live in protected cities and nomadic outsiders like Li, forced to wander between temporary camps and tiny dying towns, trying to apply for ‘sheltered’ status from an under-resourced aid system in that mysterious area ‘inside’, where cities still sprawl behind massive, human-built dividing walls. There are shades of Trumpian politics there. As one character says, the External Border was never built to truly shelter the populace from Weather, but ‘to keep unwanted people out of places the builders couldn’t even imagine Weather reaching’.
The dystopian vision, as Li loses almost everything except the compulsion to find the daughter she has been separated from, encompasses not only global wars over all natural resources (from minerals to water), and impoverished refugees forced into labour in transit camps, but also the challenge of living in a constant state of administrative limbo. Even as Li attempts to harvest water with handmade stills she scrapes in the dirt, or traps small animals as extra trading currency, or hides from wild dogs and dingoes at night, she is also trying to lodge a ‘missing minor’ claim with Agency and seek a change in citizen status, on patched-together cell phones that run out of credit and rarely allow her to speak to a real human being. She is interminably put on hold, or hears robotic recorded messages from this futuristic version of social welfare. It’s almost bleakly comical that all this frustration with phones and bureaucracy is still part of Moleta’s apocalyptic prediction, and yet it dovetails all too credibly with the sense of relentless obstacles.
A world of electronic applications and faceless officialdom perhaps suggests dreary, colourless frustration. Yet the dominant mode and tone of the novel are less the dark, absurdist stasis of a Beckett play and more the adrenaline-pumping tension of action movies, particularly those with female heroes: The Hunger Games, say (or Alien, perhaps, though with far worse tech). Li has multiple encounters and challenges that had me pulling at my own hair and biting ulcers into my mouth, willing her to safety. There is a sense in the novel that taking too much time to reflect is perilous. Li has to react and work fast to overcome the onslaught of grim physical and interpersonal challenges. If she allows fears and memories to spin and tumble under her body’s increasing dehydration and exhaustion, her emotions threaten to become her foes too. Yet, in another sense, the most difficult mental work she is faced with is to sustain the ability to trust and allow affection. The small sparks of kindness and human correspondence, unlikely as she believes them to be, become the psychological—and practical—stepping stones that help refuel her determination and ability to search for Matti.
Moleta’s narrative skills mean that the reader, like Li, is never quite sure who is a threat and who is still propelled forward in their own lives by the qualities of genuine mutual care and kindness. Flashbacks to the intimacy and wry gallows banter with her partner, Frank, offer both Li and the reader some relief from the strain of the search. So too do chance scraps of news about a group of children walking a few days ahead of Li. There is an eerie, haunting vividness to the depiction of the foot traffic exodus:
Everyone was caked in dust. People carried their lives on their backs, their mouths and noses covered with masks or rags. They wore goggles or sunglasses or welding visors, scarves or veils, hats with gauze hanging down. Some of them were accompanied by underfed dogs, watchful and dust-coloured. There were people on bicycles and occasionally horses, cloth-muzzled, dust streaming back from their shoulders like red wings. Once, a camel loomed out of a red cloud, a man swaying on top, holding a crossbow, everything he owned still stacked behind him.
There is also rich intelligence in the way Moleta presents the rumours of what the small band of children means to all the other lost and broken people that Li encounters along her way. Moleta writes, movingly, of the mythic aura gathering around the whispers:
The stories were elastic and contradictory, delivered with the conviction of retelling […] they became a kind of wonder […] the children in these stories emerged out of some collective dust and faded into it again, untouched and untouchable.
This stirs flickers of memory for me of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy series, where dust is not just elementary matter but the particles of consciousness particularly potent around young people. Commentary from other characters about the young climate refugees conjures up everything from a kind of religious pilgrimage—an almost benign, yet inverse, Children’s Crusade (Li thinks the children might be trying to escape the army ballot, which starts at age fifteen)—to a distressing version of our own era’s school strikes for climate. Rumours also suggest the children march in penance for the rest of the race; or that they are led away by some kind of Pied Piper dream of an earthly Eden. In Matti’s words, this vision of a paradise is the Best Place, a ‘desert’ legend many of the adults also need to believe in: the Deep Islands, somewhere overseas, where you’re meant to be able to grow food, there is water, there is a loosening of quota, no army ballot and, as Matti’s father says with a simplicity that also feels achingly naïve, there is also ‘less Weather’.
The increasing jeopardy for Li, as she falls in with a corrupt salvage crew, winds up in a punitive labour camp and re-encounters a gentle medic whom she is perhaps right to doubt, is interleaved now and then with snippets of information about her relationship with her little girl and her own itinerant, piecemeal upbringing. This information isn’t always a release: around page 292, when Li is involved in a numb kind of transaction that is either sex work or casual rape, depending on how exactly you read the oblique coded changes of tension, was just about more than I could take on Li’s behalf. It piles new trauma upon old, and I became fidgety with desperation for her to find some succour.
Revelations about Li’s own background are sparse, and this leaves a gnawing uncertainty until the final section of the novel when the two narrative paths—external dramatic action in the physical and emotional tempest of the present, and memories of Li’s own heart-rendingly compromised childhood—converge. The narrative tightens the screws even more in its last gasp, bringing us to a kind of Sophie’s Choice, a Judgement of Solomon, for the climate crisis generation. Li seems to be faced with the old adage that you will only ever understand what your parents had to go through when faced with their dilemmas yourself: those choices that seem to be impossible paradoxes. Choose between a kind of protective denial and irresponsible softness, a care that might seem like punishment, or a nurturing that reads like endangerment.
I went from being desperate to know the ending to making myself cover up the final paragraphs so that my eyes wouldn’t race ahead of my understanding. I read the last pages with limbs pretzelled around each other in dread, as if I’d involuntarily knotted myself into the infinity sign in a sort of prayer—and at the last paragraph found my jaw and my right arm ran cold with tingles. The whole novel leaves me both uplifted by the quality of the writing, and yet also weirdly exercised that I even managed to finish it.
Is it a good thing, or a bad thing, that eco-crisis fiction is now a well-known capacious genre, and that I also seem to have become detached enough to be able to face Moleta’s vision without feeling a psychic shut-down? Am I mentally tough enough or just resigned? The strength and credibility of the characters and scenarios Moleta creates make the questions her novel poses—about the lengths we would go to for our children—feel direct and confronting.
Good or bad? It is not a bad thing to have a role model in Li, this flawed and yet competent, tough and yet loving woman. It is not a bad thing to have climate anxiety refreshed by a tightly written book, one that is stark and thrilling and distressing. It is, in fact, hauntingly inspirational.
EMMA NEALE works as a freelance editor. A former editor of Landfall, she is also the author of six novels and six collections of poetry. Her first book of short stories, The Pink Jumpsuit, was published in 2021.