All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Unsheltered by Clare Moleta

on May 26, 2021

Unsheltered
Clare Moleta
Simon & Schuster AUS
2021, 320p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: As the resourceful, relentless Li tracks her lost daughter across a disintegrating country, the journey will test the limits of her trust, her hope and her love. Unsheltered will leave you wrung out and gasping.

Relentlessly propulsive and profoundly moving, Unsheltered taps into some of our worst fears and most implacable motivations, marking the emergence of a fully-formed and urgent literary voice.

Against a background of social breakdown and destructive weather, Unsheltered tells the story of a woman’s search for her daughter. Li never wanted to bring a child into a world like this but now that eight-year-old Matti is missing, she will stop at nothing to find her.

As she crosses the great barren country alone and on foot, living on what she can find and fuelled by visions of her daughter just out of sight ahead, Li will have every instinct tested. She knows the odds against her: an uncompromising landscape, an uncaring system, time running out, and the risks of any encounters on the road. But her own failings and uncertainty might be the greatest obstacle of all. Because even if she finds her, how can she hope to shield Matti from the future?

At times tender, at times terrifying, Unsheltered is an engrossing, unpredictable novel that keeps the reader in suspense all the way to the end. A brilliant feat of imagination that asks if our humanity is the only protection we have left, Unsheltered will affect you in ways a book hasn’t done in years.

This is really not an easy book to review. I’ve been mulling over what I might say since I finished it yesterday and although I have some thoughts, none of them are particularly coherent.

A message at the front of the book says this book’s setting is “Australian but not Australia. Geography, distance and time have been altered, some things moved around and others invented entirely“. So whilst some things may seem familiar in some ways, it’s not supposed to be the country we know, even though the message is at times, indicative of things we’ve seen and heard before.

Main character Li lives in a ghost of a town with Frank, and their daughter Matti. They had an olive farm but Weather (so much a force that it’s capitalised) has sent them trial after trial and their only option is to leave. There are camps much like refugee-style camps outside walled cities and there are ballots to try and get entry. After Frank is lost to them, Matti is in one of these camps but Li is outside the boundaries, trapping for trade when the camp catches fire and is broken down by some Authority group. She is separated from her daughter Matti and from then on, everything Li does is about finding Matti and getting her back.

It’s a story of survival, of desperation. Li has a lot of complicated feelings about being a mother – in this world, it seems there is a Quota and parents are restricted to one child. Frank was definitely more enthusiastic than Li and she thinks openly of moments in Matti’s babyhood and younger days, where she failed to connect with her daughter, lost her temper or struggled. Now that Matti is lost to her, the unaccompanied minors herded onto a bus and taken somewhere, Li can only follow on foot, trying desperately to reclaim her. She meets people along the way – some will be helpful, offering up information or sharing resources or trading. Others will betray her, take the meagre possessions she has. She will see and experience some of the worst Weather has to offer and the desperation and hopelessness of what seems to be some sort of internment/prison camp.

There’s a lot in this that mimics recognisable parts of society today – bushfires, what seems to be either cyclones or tornadoes (although disconcertingly, one is mentioned from coming up from the Southern Ocean) indicate a land absolutely ravaged by climate change. In the opening chapter it rains where Frank and Li live for the first time in years. Matti is 5 or 6 and had never seen rain in her life. It’s not too much of a stretch to picture this as Australia in the future. We’re already a climate of extremes and the changing weather patterns are impacting more and more on farming belts and rural areas. And then there’s the vague mention of Wars (also capitalised) going on elsewhere, the fact that children go into some sort of draft ballot at 15 and the treatment of people who live “outside the walls”. The camps, the struggle to make claims to be allowed in, the waiting and nothing happening, seems a pretty strong reference to refugees attempting to come here and being stuck in camps for years and years, their claims going nowhere, the catch-22 situation of it being illegal to seek asylum but there being no real ‘legal’ way to wait in a hypothetical queue that doesn’t exist. Li is often stuck in similar situations: credit is required to call and check on claims or when she wants an update on Matti’s missing minor status but the waiting times are such that the credit just runs out and she’s stuck in a loop, unless someone she knows “inside” the wall will agree to help her.

This had a really strong atmosphere but the fact that I didn’t know where anything was or where Li was going in relation to places she’d been before, made it difficult to picture a lot of things in my head. A map would’ve been really handy – she walks for days but I don’t know where that took her in relation to where she was, or where certain cities were, it sort of made it hard to connect with Li’s journey in that I mostly had no idea where she was going and how long it was going to take. Likewise I didn’t really understand the governmental structure either: who was in control and why and what exactly, they were preventing from happening. There’s some vague explanations but it wasn’t enough for me, I wanted a bit more to back up the situation that Li had found herself in.

I enjoyed this – Li’s desperation, her survival skills, honed years before Matti’s birth and how she’d tried to teach Matti to survive as well, perhaps feeling that this would one day happen. I also liked her thoughts on motherhood, her frank admittance that she hadn’t really wanted it, that she’d done it because Frank had wanted it and her struggle with connecting with her daughter. The clear obvious difference between Matti’s relationship with Li and her one with Frank. The way in which Li felt guilty over some of the ways in which she’d struggled in the past, but the singleminded determination to find her daughter once they were separated, no matter what it took, what it cost her. But I also found Li remote, as a character and perhaps that’s deliberate because of the harsh setting, the way she has to be in order to do what she needs to do to survive. But it did mean that sometimes, I struggled to stay grounded in the story and my mind wandered a bit.

A grim story and perhaps a warning – some of it felt hopeful but also like it was just out of reach.

7/10

Book #83 of 2021

Unsheltered is the 35th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021


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