The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts
A personal crisis and an ecological crisis run parallel in Madeleine Watts' debut novel
In the 19th century, some optimistic British explorers believed that an inland sea lay at the heart of Australia, an oasis that could help tame the continent. As Madeleine Watts notes in her debut novel, named after the geological phenomenon, the men were both too late and too early for their inland sea: one had already gone extinct, and one will likely return as a result of climate change. These parallels between the past and the future echo throughout The Inland Sea, in its unnamed protagonist’s inheritance – she is the direct ancestor of one of the explorers who sought an inland sea – and more broadly, in the legacy we leave on the planet in the form of the current climate crisis.
Newly graduated and struggling to stay afloat in Sydney, our narrator takes a job at an emergency dispatch call centre, which she fits in between drinking too much, sleeping with strangers and obsessing over recent violent attacks on women in the city. Meanwhile, Australia is getting unbearably hot as bushfires rage close by.
With great skill that is both meticulous in detail and vast in ambition, Watts constructs a claustrophobic, sweltering dome over her protagonist, one that captures contemporary anxieties around ideas of identity, femininity and the environment. The Inland Sea is a welcome addition to the new era of the ecological novel, but Watts goes further than commenting on her protagonist’s environment, instead using the genre to explore apathy, cruelty and repercussions across generations. It’s both a warning and atonement for our future and our past.
Pushkin Press, £14.99, out now