Abi Curtis’ first novel may not be a conventional one, but it’s certainly a wonderful example of original, speculative fiction. More reflective than action-driven, Water & Glass is a jarring and surreal novel that’s been artfully crafted with all of the skill and detail of an award-winning poet, which makes it an interesting read even when the story finds itself as adrift as the submarine it’s describing.
Set in the near future after an apocalyptic environmental disaster has flooded the Earth and decimated the population, Water & Glass follows zoologist Nerissa Crane in her strange new life aboard a massive submarine called the Baleen, which is now home to a small collection of humans and animals who will continue sailing until they once again find dry land. Nerissa is perfectly content to keep to herself and care for the animals while she learns to live with the new state of the world and the loss of her husband, but when one of the animals escapes, she’s drawn out into the ship’s community and is ultimately forced to confront the truth about life on the Baleen, and her own reason for being there.
Or, at least, that’s what the blurb says. In reality, Nerissa is slow to learn of the Baleen’s purpose and what it means for her, so the majority of the novel is made up of wonderfully articulate reflections of life on board the ship, as well as Nerissa’s life leading up to it.
“In the mornings, for the first few seconds after she wakes, she never remembers where she is. And when she does realise, she thinks of how they are never in the same place twice, but pushing through the dark blue sea as if moving deep into the heart of a shadow.”
Between Nerissa’s ever-increasing exploration of the Baleen itself and through the short, intriguing bursts of narration from the point of view of the escaped Wooly Rat doing the same, the secrets of the ship are teased out slowly but surely and ultimately come together in creative and surprising ways. Unfortunately, a lot of the build up is let down at the crucial moment and the deftly-planned, suspense-driven revelation plays out in a fizzle of exposition and explanations, not with the bang you’d perhaps be hoping for.
But, while this novel stalls in delivering action, there’s no denying the beauty in the prose, and Abi Curtis proves herself adept at invoking the brilliantly creepy-yet-elegant imagery of a world submerged in water, both on the Baleen and off. The ship is a richly-imagined living, breathing beast in itself, but the more enthralling parts of the novel follow Nerissa in the snapshots of her life before, from meeting her future husband Greg in the Borneo rainforest to the eerily beautiful descriptions of Venice submerged in water, or of Istanbul being transformed into its own intricate patchwork of canals as it adapts to its new reality in a world of floods and rising sea levels.
Water & Glass is therefore not a book for everyone; it’s a slow-paced and thoughtful piece of fiction that is very much about its delivery as much as its content – and it definitely succeeds on that front too, delivering a gorgeously written novel that it’s difficult to put down without considering the likelihood of Curtis’ vision of the future coming to pass.
But, for the most part, this novel tends to linger a bit too much on its narrative reflections, resulting in a story that’s too laboured, an ending that feels rushed and a lead character who struggles to come into her own as a strong, narrative-leading presence. This is a novel with thought-provoking premise and one that’s been elegantly told too, but when it comes down to it, Water & Glass has a little too much style and not enough substance.
Water & Glass is published by Cloud Lodge Books on 30 November 2017