Review of Memory of Water (2014) by Emmi Itäranta

The climate crisis is the most pressing moral and existential crisis of our time.

Photo by Chris LeBoutillier on

Since the start of the 1980’s, the departure from the average global surface has progressively risen to being 1 degree higher than that of the 19th century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been emphatic that the warming seen today is due to man-made greenhouse gases up to a 95% degree of certainty. This is despite any uncertainties that exist in climate models and in observations. Their calculations have shown that the heating they have recorded has coincided with an exponential increase in greenhouse gas emissions; of which we spew 152 million tons of into our atmosphere every 24 hours. This is the equivalent of exploding 500,000 Hiroshima class atomic bombs worth of energy per day. This has been hallmarked by the amount of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels, which itself is still the source of 80% of the world’s energy supply, increasing roughly 10 fold over a span of decades.

When climate change caused catastrophe is conversed about, we are often told apocalyptic tales of floods swallowing and submerging cities whole, droughts destroying crops, devastation doled out by diseases like the Zika virus, fires vaporizing homes, climate induced migration and the literal and figurative dark clouds cast by the prospect of extreme weather events. I myself have often written on this blog what has been predicted to happen in the worst case scenario should we not take action to mitigate climate change as well as about what is happening now to people who are suffering from climate related environmental racism. This is based in fact. We need to be very clear about that. However, a misapprehension exists that our planet and everyone on it will be instantaneously wiped out by a Roland Emmerich style climate event should we not act now. Regardless of what happens today, life will ultimately go on in one form or the other. Tragically, it will be likely that it will be a form of life that is both unpalatable, unimaginable and, worst of all, unlivable for many of us.

To those reading this in the developed North and in wealthy countries, I ask the following question: have you ever considered what that a world under the worst outcomes of climate change might really look like? How would your day to day life be altered? For example, how would humdrum activities like your morning routine change? Would you still have the ability to make the consumer choices that you do? Would you still enjoy the same level of human rights and freedom of speech?

This image is dramatic, but is it really what is waiting for us?
Photo by cottonbro on

Emmi Itäranta’s (2014) novel ‘Memory of Water’ makes us consider how the lives of our descendants will be immeasurably transformed should we as a species not harness the will to mitigate climate change. It’s main character is Noria Kaitio, a young girl living in what once was Scandinavia, with her father and mother. When one thinks of that locale, the image of snow is one that comes to mind. In this story, the effects of climate change have transmogrified Earth into a place where those of Noria’s generation have never even seen it. Indeed, the world it singes into our memory is one of unsolicited government searches without due process, military conflict and conquest, restrictions on movement, radical transformation in the right to purchase and consume, insect plagues, unrecognizable geographic layouts and, as the title would intimate, water shortages.

Noria’s father is a tea master, meaning that he is versed in how to conduct tea ceremonies; the type of which will be revealed as we move through this review. She is somewhat of an oddity in the world of tea masters as it is an art form that has been exclusively associated with males in this universe. The role she has taken on has bestowed upon her new responsibilities that include entertaining and schmoozing with the locals, of whom the ever powerful military is included. Another obligation that is to become a near fatal burden to her is the maintenance of a freshwater spring beneath her family’s home; one whose water supply her father surreptitiously uses to help host his tea ceremonies. A spring she must keep secret from her neighbors and the authorities lest the family be arrested for breaching water rationing restrictions. However, upon her father’s death, her mother moving to the capital city of Xinjing against a backdrop of rising civil unrest, the military closing in on the location of the spring, and the discovery of an audio CD in a plastic grave which may contain the key to the dystopic origins of the milieu they exist in, Noria will soon be forced into making a series of destiny altering decisions that will not only inexorably alter the path she is walking, but that of others.

A common sight in ‘Memory of Water’
Photo by Erik Karits on

The book is decently paced, and tends to read like a thriller. As you move through it’s pages, you intuitively sense that Noria is doomed, but the cause of her downfall remains nebulous. The end of world backdrop that she lives in adds to this overhanging sense of dread. You are plunged straight into ‘Memory of Water’s’ world with little explanation as to why things are the way they are. It forces you to fill in the gaps as to what is happening. A constant in the book is the constant presence of insects such as horse and ‘blazeflies’. Without spelling out why this is the case, it relies on the reader to know of the ever conspicuous northward migration trends and altered breeding patterns of insects, both of which have been more greatly observed as climate change has progressed. The preponderance of plastics is also touched upon in the form of the ‘plastic graves’; garbage dumps where non biodegradable waste is allowed to rot away over the course of it’s stubbornly enduring life cycle.

One area that stands out is the references to Asian languages and customs. While the book never explicitly says that this area of the world has been conquered by China, the presence of the distinctly Asian custom of tea ceremonies, the naming of Noria’s home nation of New Qian and it’s capital city of Xinjing, and community festivals such as the Moonfeast indicate that an Asiatic presence has been grafted onto what in our times has been recognized as a largely Caucasian part of the world. I believe that there needs to be caution in pursuing this narrative. Portraying climate induced migration and ‘foreign invasions’ as a possibility can unintentionally conjure up distant outcomes that are not being borne out by the facts. Portraying imagery of ‘alien invasions’ can unwillingly assist segments of the environmental movement that are nativist, xenophobic and believe in climate mitigation as a means to avoid Malthusian crisis. Furthermore, it can also be harnessed by anti-diversity demagogues who have no conscience, no shame and no desire to counteract climate change at all. As someone who defends the rights of migrant, asylum seeker and refugee communities, the potential of climate change mitigation being indirectly weaponized to fuel distrust and discrimination of those using migration as a legitimate means to seek a better life is an outcome that fills me with horror.

That being said, the prose is beautifully constructed, and the use of words within it take on greater meaning as one moves throughout it. In addition to the use of Mandarin words and Asiatic concepts, even small things like the name of the main character, Noria, has a double meaning. I was previously unaware that a noria is a water wheel with buckets attached to its rim for raising water from a stream into irrigation canals; a concept that ties in beautifully into this story. Words are not wasted, and for a book that was written in both Finnish and English, I can only commend the exquisiteness of it’s writing.

All in all, I’d recommend ‘Memory of Water’ as a decent airplane novel or as a novel for adolescent audiences. It’s eminently readable, makes you think and maintains suspense.

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