The Impossible Resurrection of Grief by Octavia Cade (Stelliform Press, 2021), 77 pp, $14.99
Octavia Cade’s The Impossible Resurrection of Grief is a non-traditional ghost story, one that truly haunts as it is set in a future not so distant from ours, where the destruction of our seas and wildlife has left familiar land- and seascapes drained of life. Cade has won three Sir Julius Vogel awards for speculative fiction, and it’s worth noting that, besides her recent win for The Stone Wētā (2020), the other two were for novellas, both packing important questions into the small creative space. It’s also worth noting their titles—The Ghost of Matter (2016) and The Convergence of Fairy Tales (2017)—which hint at the themes she explores.
In The Impossible Resurrection of Grief the narrator is Ruby. We first encounter her as she observes how this haunting ecological absence has taken its toll on her friend Marjorie, who is sick with Grief. That’s Grief with a capital G—something that permeates this world. The Grief we watch overtaking Marjorie is one that navigates a particular absence, ‘the undermining upwelling of loss in response to ecosystem devastation, the failure of conversation’. It’s a Grief that Ruby finds ‘far harder to comprehend’ because it’s a loss ‘underlined by guilt’. It’s a Grief that ravages whole families, a ‘contagion’ with ‘random outbreaks’. Everyone ‘knows someone who succumbs’.
Marjorie’s reaction to ecosystem loss is extreme, in the form of destruction. Her Grief propels her to burn her beloved boat, the Sea Witch, after which she asks Ruby, ‘Why not destroy for the sake of it? Isn’t that what we’ve always done?’ After this act, she anoints herself the ‘Sea Witch’, living in an abandoned saltwater pool, using plastic bags and the pages of her research to make fake jellyfish, collecting plastic to cause further harm and sharpening combs into blades. To what end, one might ask? Her response is simple: ‘because we kill everything anyway’. The degradation of her former life as a Great Barrier Reef conservationist, the reef now completely bleached, is shown by these destructive impulses. In them, we also sense a foreshadowing when Ruby notes, ‘The Grief always ends in suicide.’ Knowing what’s to come—sensing how this will end—doesn’t make Marjorie’s ultimate destruction any less shocking. Her suicide comes when she cuts her tongue with the plastic dagger and drowns herself in waters teeming with jellyfish. It’s gruesome and yet we understand it, thanks to Cade’s artful use of language.
Ruby’s speciality is jellyfish. And the jellyfish, like Marjorie’s reef, become a symbol of her existence too, as jellyfish are ‘more tolerant of climate change than many organisms, able to adapt to warming waters and lower oxygen content’. Like Ruby, they are more resilient to these changing times. It’s notable that the Great Barrier Reef becomes lifeless and Marjorie perishes, while Ruby never succumbs to the Grief. Ruby is not immune to the pain of it; she admits: ‘if something had come to kill the jellyfish of the world … I’d have wanted to murder too’.
This world of decay seems a place where life is futile, and it’s not until Ruby meets Granny, a contact given to her through Marjorie’s posthumous letters, that a drop of hope comes. In Granny, Ruby comes across her first ‘Resurrectionist’—a group of people trying to bring back extinct local species. For Granny, a scientist, this resurrection is biological. Ruby visits Granny’s isolated home in Tasmania, and finds a place that houses young thylacine pups, once known as Tasmanian tigers; significantly, these are animals whose DNA Granny has pieced back together and is hiding in secret lest they be destroyed again. Granny has invited Ruby here in order to recruit her to be a Resurrectionist too. The story turns sinister when Ruby spends the night there and, hearing the pacing and panting of the tiger pups all night long, suspects she may have been chosen as bait for these hunting animals.
The questions around these Resurrectionists occupy an important part of the novel. When Ruby and her soon-to-be-ex-husband, George, attend an art exhibition in New Zealand, they find another Resurrectionist in George’s ex-colleague Darren. Darren’s Resurrection occurs via robotics mixed with sculpture, reimagining the extinct New Zealand native box wren into existence. Some of these simulacra are even released into the wild to help remind trampers in the mountains of ‘what used to be here’. But when Ruby and George are asked to go and look at these fake wrens in the wild, something goes awry; they watch as robotic wrens kill their predators, poisoning the rats that still populate the mountains. Ruby and George manage to capture one and realise it is possible that these birds could poison human ‘rats’ too.
How does all of this relate to the idea of Grief? Ruby realises that both Granny and Darren’s Resurrection attempts have been propelled by the instability of their Grief. While Marjorie’s Grief led to her own self-destruction, in these two people it has led to a vengeful bloodlust. Their ultimate goal is justice, to be attained only through destroying the humans who have destroyed what they once loved. It’s an inescapable cycle of destruction. As the title tells us, real Resurrection is impossible.
As those stricken by Grief continue to try to Resurrect, both the beauty and fake quality of their Resurrections become alarming, until one at the end of the novella changes the way we view all of them. And here it’s important to note Cade’s use of fairy tales, which she weaves into her characters’ stories, rehashing well-worn tales from an entirely new perspective. Her clever reworking of The Little Mermaid, Snow White and The Nightingale offer a new sense of nature’s influence on her characters and their relationships to it. Fittingly, Darren’s favourite fairy tale is The Nightingale, the story of a mechanical bird who enchants a king, and how ‘the song of the bird – the real bird – was so beautiful that it won mercy from death’. In Cade’s world the real bird doesn’t win and the fairy tales become ghost tales, representing a far-gone world where nature still exists.
Like all dystopic science or speculative fiction, the closer it is to real life the more eerie it becomes. This book is published by Stelliform Press, a small press specialising in climate fiction whose mission it is to traverse the line between our real-world experience and fiction, ‘[taking] up the conversation around the climate emergency and an intersectional view of environmental justice’. Cade’s imaginative take on how humans will react to a world destroyed by the human hand strikes an alarming chord. Reading about the Grief in the wake and waves of the global pandemic and lockdowns, I find it hard not to link the current virus with the sickening of the lands around us: the fires of Australia, California and Turkey; the floods of Germany; the hurricanes of New Orleans and New England. And this is what Cade is trying to outline in her story: the synchronicity—Jung’s ‘acasual connecting principal’—that connects us to the land and seas we inhabit. Cade is warning us through The Impossible Resurrection of Grief that we too will become ghosts if we continue to turn our Earth and seas into a graveyard. In this way, her speculative fiction begins to feel not so speculative.
It is interesting to note that Cade wrote the novella during the first half of 2020 when she was a visiting artist at Massey University. Only a few days into her residency, lockdown turned the university campus into its own ghost town. People were suddenly ecologically deprived and turned to nature-cam viewing. Cade admits in her acknowledgements that this story grew from ‘a reaction to ecosystem loss that came out of a residency defined by absence’.
SHANA CHANDRA is freelance writer from Aotearoa of Girmit and Fiji-Indian descent, currently based in France, who works in the magazine and digital publishing industries worldwide, engaging with fashion, art, design and culture. Having completed her MA in creative writing in Sydney, she is currently working on her debut novel, Banjara, a fictional account based on her indentured ancestors. www.shanachandra.com