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Friday, February 19, 2016

The Memory of Water--The Girl Who Guarded a Tradition

The main reason why I picked this one up was because I thought it was original that the central character of this climate change dystopia is a female tea master.  I also admired Emmi Itäranta, the author of The Memory of Water, for writing the Finnish and English versions simultaneously.   This was especially impressive because Itäranta is a literary writer.   Few writers can write stylistically superior novels in two languages.

 In the days when I was a young participant in science fiction and fantasy fandom in the 1970's, literary science fiction and fantasy writers needed to choose their loyalties.  Were they going to be identified as literary and be studied in universities, or were they going to be identified with science fiction and be read by science fiction fans?  It seemed to me that at a certain point in her career Ursula LeGuin chose to be identified as literary.  The pace of her plots became too leisurely for me.  Eventually, I stopped reading her.  Yet her literary reputation continued to grow.

The current generation of literary science fiction and fantasy writers have found a way to please both the critics and the fans.  You can write beautiful prose and still tell a compelling story.   Emmi Itäranta is an example of this phenomenon.

                             

 
                                    
So we have a teenage heroine with an unusual profession.  I noticed that  reviewers seemed to assume that this girl from a long line of tea masters was entirely Finnish.  Yet I looked at her name, Noria Kaitio, and it seemed like it could be Japanese.   I looked up Noria and discovered that it was derived from a Spanish word for  "a device for raising water from a stream or river, consisting of a chain of pots or buckets revolving around a wheel driven by the water current."  Since the plot revolves around the scarcity of water, the choice of the protagonist's name can't be coincidental.  Oh, and I also did find that there were some Japanese Norias.  I imagined that a Japanese tea master fled the warming climate in Japan, re-settled in Finland and married a Finnish woman.  He passed on the tea ceremony to his descendants whose appearance became indistinguishable from the surrounding population in Finland over the generations.  This imagined history led me to envision the central character as the last guardian of a Japanese tradition.

Yet I wanted more detail about the practice of  the tea ceremony and more of the philosophy of tea.  There was a slight taste of it in this novel, but it wasn't really the focus of the book as I had hoped.  If this book was supposed to be about a confrontation of the tradition of tea and the military authorities, then readers should be given a better idea of what the protagonist was fighting for.  I understood that the tea ceremony as it was practiced by Noria's family was unsustainable in this harsh environment.  I think the tea ceremony was intended to be a symbol of the many human practices which had been historically valued by humanity that could not be carried on. 

Another thing I wanted from this book was more world building.  It was like a jigsaw puzzle with too many missing pieces.  There wasn't enough there for me to complete it on my own.  So far there is no indication that Itäranta intends to complete it herself in a sequel.  Her second novel appears to be an unrelated fantasy.

I did love the protagonist and her friendship with the resourceful and inventive Sanja, but the unexpected epilogue lacked conviction for me.  In the end, I saw the book as weak tea poured out over a parched landscape in a dying world.  In other words, it was a tragic waste.

                                 


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