Everything these days is Orwellian. Government surveillance, the stuff on TV, the fact that basically all the apps on your iPhone or Android device aim to track you. These things are rarely actually Orwellian. Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta, however, is.
It’s the future. After a great war and a time referred to only as The Twilight Century, humanity has managed to stop itself from being extinct. Barely. One of the Earth’s most precious resources is either gone or toxic: Water. This is the world Noria Kaitio grows up in. She’s a young woman at the age where she stops being a student and starts being a professional. In her case, this is the profession of Tea Master. Tea Masters are those who uphold the ancient tradition of serving tea to dignitaries and other guests of honour. Not unlike tea ceremonies from Japan, Noria has to entertain the guests in a very formal manner, make sure the tea is perfect and serve sweets.
In a world where water is rare and sweets are an unspeakable luxury almost, this is quite the responsibility. Add to that the fact that the Kaito family of Tea Masters are famous for their tea, Noria is under quite some pressure to perform.
But that’s not all. Because one of the gravest crimes there is in this post-apocalyptic society is that of Water Crime, the hiding of fresh water resources or the building of an illegal pipe from an existing spring. Criminals have a blue circle painted on their door and are never heard from again.
Yet, somehow, inexplicably, the tea that the Kaitios serve is better than that of others. This is because the Kaitios have been guardians of a secret spring for many generations. The knowledge of this spring alone is deadly. But all’s been good thus far, as Master Kaitio, Noria’s father, has good relations with the local Military occupation.
Everything changes when that military man in Master Kaitio’s confidence dies.
Not A Young Adult Book
This might sound like the plot of a Young Adult book, but it really isn’t. In fact, Emmi Itäranta does her best to skirt around all the clichés of the Girl in the Post-Apocalypse genre. Instead, she tells a compelling story about a character who just happens to be a young woman.
When Noria’s mother flees the country to what used to be Russia, Noria could go along. The perfect setup for a typical Girl in the Post-Apocalypse, right? Big journey to some strange and foreign place, forward into the unknown after all that we hold dear has ended? Yeah, well, Noria stays home. So Noria doesn’t go anywhere and the other big staple of YA literature is missing. While the book teases at a romantic interest, there ultimately isn’t anyone Noria falls for.
This makes for a quite engaging and refreshing read as readers have no way of knowing where the story is going.
About That Orwell
Memory of Water manages to be one of the few books that is truly Orwellian. In mainstream media, people call Big Data or PRiSM – the USA’s government sponsored surveillance program exposed by Edward Snowden – Orwellian. Or even just the seemingly omnipresent CCTV surveillance. And while surveillance certainly is a central theme in Orwell’s book, it’s only half the story. Because the surveillance is not the end all be all of it. Surveillance is not the point at all.
The point of it all is control. That’s what the government wants. In most truly Orwellian stories, control is something subtle, unless the characters are immediately aware of it, as seen in John Twelve Hawks’ books. In these cases, the characters take active action against the control mechanisms implemented by the government, usually in the form of avoiding surveillance. Because being untraceable makes a person much more elusive and therefore hard to control. So surveillance is the easiest way to show and escape control in a novel. In real life, this is a bit more difficult, mind you.
In Emmi Itäranta’s book, the characters are only cursorily aware of the control they’re under. In fact, it’s become their everyday life and it’s never spelled out for the readers. It is something omnipresent and something that people in the book have gotten used to. This makes the book a rather alienating but compelling read seeing as readers are used to stories of rebellion and victory against this kind of government.
All in all, Memory of Water is an engaging and enjoyably short read that has been rightfully nominated for all the awards it’s been nominated for. And, of course, the book deserves all the awards it’s won. Further, it begs to ask the question: What will Emmi Itäranta come up with next?