Novel: Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

Spending the last several years in California has made me acutely aware of the world’s current and forthcoming water woes, a subject Finnish novelist Emmi Itäranta tackles in her assured debut, Memory of Water (2014). It tells the story of Noria Kaitio, the daughter of a teamaster in the Scandinavian Union—a territory, in this future, that has been occupied by the empire of New Qian. In a post-collapse world wracked by drowned coasts, ecological change, and freshwater shortages, Noria and her family maintain a quaint, modest existence performing tea ceremonies in rural Finland. But as martial law expands to control the world’s dwindling resources, Noria’s gentle, simple life is about to undergo desperate challenges.

Memory of Water is a quietly compelling retrofuture with timely subject matter, sympathetic characters, and a confident voice. There’s an accomplished literary sensibility to its simple but effective narrative, and its atmosphere is immersive and elegiac. This isn’t a particularly cheerful tale, but it’s a powerful one, aiming for the kind of heartbreaking punch that Elizabeth Wein delivered in Code Name Verity. Itäranta doesn’t quite reach those heights, but she makes an admirable go of it, sure-handedly rendering Noria’s story as cautionary metaphor for the rest of us. Quite well done.

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