Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Brief Review: The Coral Bones, by E.J. Swift

The philosopher Timothy Horton described global heating, climate change species loss and all the other upheavals of the Anthropocene, as hyperobjects 'massively distributed in space and time relative to humans'. Although we can see evidence for their existence, the totality of these hyperobjects is much harder -- if not impossible -- to comprehend, and attempting to depict them from the default close third person point-of-view presents obvious difficulties for the novelist. One solution is to distribute the story amongst multiple characters scattered across time, a technique used to fine effect in E.J. Swift's novel about three women who in different centuries observe the unspoiled beauty and the decline and fall of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

In the nineteenth century, before the onset of the Anthropocene and global heating, Judith persuades her father to allow her to join his survey expedition of coral islands along the length of the reef. In the present, Hanna, a marine biologist trying to find ways to save the reef from climate change while coming to terms with the break-up of a relationship, becomes involved in the mystery of Coral Man, whose white-painted body is found adrift in an inflatable painted with a message: This is what it looks like when coral dies. And in a future where the interior of Australia is a hostile furnace and most of the reef is dead, Telma sets out along the coral ruins to investigate rumours of a seemingly impossible sighting of an extinct fish species. 

There are detailed, immersive passages describing reef biology, geology and history, and measuring the destruction and loss in the present and the consequences for the future against the unspoiled abundance and beauty of reefs in the before times of Hanna's explorations, but the narrative is very much character driven. Its three strands contrast the sacrifices each of the women make to pursue their obsessions, and despite the justifiable anger at the destruction and loss caused by human greed and carelessness, links subtly spun between their lives offer something a little more hopeful than a default dystopian wasteland.



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