Print this page

The Inland Sea

By Madeleine Watts, Catapult Books, 2021

Let me read anything by Madeleine Watts. Please.

This debut novel reads like a memoir, and perhaps, like many first books, it draws on personal experience. Like the narrator, Watts has striking, curly, red hair, and was born around 1990. That places her in the generation that fears the apocalypse of climate change like no other, and this thread runs through her book.

The second thread is the question raised by the Me-Too movement. In flashbacks and in the present moment in the book, Watts describes violence against women. One of her male co-workers at the emergency call center at which she works callously describes a murder victim as “asking for it.” Presumably, this is because of the way the woman dressed, the fact that she was leaving a bar, and looking behind her at her attacker.

This story is not set in a country controlled by the Taliban. It is set in present-day Sydney, Australia. Yet the violence and disrespect shown to women is a constant undertone. The narrator is obsessed with the news story of a woman raped and murdered by someone who followed her out of a bar. She hears desperate calls from threatened women at the emergency call center. But in her own life, she takes risks, blacking out while drunk, and having sex with strangers.

She is a young woman troubled by her past, her actions, her job, and the uncertainty of her future. And yet she is highly educated, knows she is privileged to be so. Is self-respect lost in our present culture? Is our lack of action on climate change another aspect of this? Are we are throwing ourselves away, just as this protagonist self-destructs, when we could be taking action to stall the disaster?

Like most good books, The Inland Sea raises questions the reader is left to ponder. Watts’ mastery of her material, her luscious prose, her characterization, and her social commentary, left me wanting more from this author.