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Posted on 26 Oct 2023 in Fiction |

BRENDAN RITCHIE Eta Draconis. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Winner of the 2022 Dorothy Hewett Award, Brendan Ritchie’s third novel is set in a dystopian Western Australia, the landscape pummelled by meteor showers.

Elora closed her eyes and waited for the flashes of light to dissolve. It took longer these days. Hours sometimes. They were phosphenes, but since Draconis, people had started calling them phantom streaks.

Draco, an important constellation in the northern skies, is known for the meteor showers that happen when the Earth passes through its stream of cometary debris. Usually, meteors look like falling stars and burn out in Earth’s atmosphere, but occasionally one survives and hits the ground as a meteorite.

In Eta Draconis, however, the storms have intensified and meteorites are raining down on Earth and causing destruction and terror throughout the world. Elora and her older sister, Vivienne, are driving from Esperance in Western Australia to Perth, where Elora is about to start a drama course at university and Vivienne will continue her studies. The journey would normally take just a couple of days with an overnight stop halfway at Ghost Lake, but nothing, now, is normal.

Elora has been counting the seconds between the flashes of ‘crisp white light that made the sun seem oddly vague and mellow’, waiting for the noise and the shockwave of a meteorite’s impact. Cars have pulled over by the roadside, caravans, too.

Suddenly their speed dropped and the car seemed to buckle downward. As if they had veered into a great headwind.

‘Put your hand on the windscreen,’ said Vivienne.

‘What?’ said Elora, abandoning the count.

‘Like this. Now,’ said Vivienne.

Elora followed her lead and lay her palm flat against the glass …

They hurtled forward into the abyss of the graveyard highway. Sky flashing on both sides of them now.

This time, their windscreen survives, but it is not the only hazard they have to endure. There are impact craters, trees felled and destroyed by shockwaves, streams of traffic, nose-to-tail, leaving the city and heading towards them on their side of the road, and the constant threatening activity in the sky.

Elora remembers her family leaving the city when she was nine, after her mother had experienced shockwave blast injuries at work. That was early in the storms, when people thought they would soon pass. She grew up in their new home near the sea, went to school, made friends, and surfed and partied with them. No-one seemed concerned about the future. Vivienne, however, never adapted to the move. She became silent, withdrawn, prone to sudden rages, and determined to return to the city as soon as she could. University solved this problem for her, but Elora no longer feels close to her and struggles to understand her.

It had been like that the whole summer. And the one before that. Clipped and strained conversations loaded with the pressure of something larger that neither of them fully understood.

Thrown together on this journey, their awkwardness with each other is made worse by Vivienne’s determination to get back to her city life, and Elora’s sudden and unexpected homesickness as she remembers the life she is leaving, and worries that she will miss her university orientation.

Halfway to Perth, Vivienne stops at a motel, telling Elora there will be a party. ‘Halfers’. ‘The halfway thing isn’t literal,’ Vivienne tells her. For most students it is a detour, but it ‘started one summer, then people kept going’. Elora is unprepared for the whole experience: the firepits; the students milling around trestle tables loaded with food; troughs of ice full of cans and bottles; the rituals, and the burning of paper planes made from school graduation certificates. She is puzzled when everyone treks into the bush to wade into the great salt lake, but she joins them:

Stepping into the water felt like entering Draconis proper. She was within the chaos now. Lights zipped across her legs and torso. Fires burned along her forehead and cheekbones. The movement was rapid. Cellular. It felt like creation as well as destruction. Elora stretched out her arms and swam her fingers through the thickness of it all, and realised that others were doing the same beside her.

So, there are moments of beauty amid the devastation of blackened craters, deserted and damaged land, and families fleeing in the vain hope of finding somewhere safe. In a few places Elora and Vivienne come across those who have decided to stay and are trying to carry on until, as they hope, things get back to normal. The girls make friends, briefly, and live through the delays and disasters that threaten to end their journey. But Draconis continues to rain meteorites, and the wolves that the ‘Arabic tribes’ used to talk of ‘in the battle of Draco’, still stalk and hunt the tiny star Alruba, which lies between Eta and Zeta Draconis, while the legendary Mother Camels (other small stars in Draco) try to protect it.

Communication towers cease to function, phone connections fail, and eventually the girls do not know whether their parents are safe or not. As they get near the city, where Vivienne plans to take one of the rare, still-flying planes to Sydney so that she can work and study in a new satellite program, Elora discovers an inn that is still open and beside it an old theatre, which has miraculously survived and is still offering performances.

Elora sat central in the upper stalls amid the soft gather of voices. Not a full house, but still there were others like her with their heads turned to a stage pooled in light. The curtains were drawn and beyond them lay the thickness of the present, coiled and ready. Existing once only and never again … Elora knew that the wolves had no agency in this place of fiction and fantasy.

Brendan Ritchie has woven a gripping tale around this journey made by two young women in a time of change and uncertainty. We may not be suffering the depredations of a long-lasting meteor shower but our own world is endangered by other things that often seem beyond our control. Driving through the Wheatbelt and seeing farmland affected ‘by the relentless heat of a warming planet’, ‘Elora couldn’t help but think that Eta Draconis masked the real crisis gripping her tiny battered Earth’.

Brendan Ritchie Eta Draconis UWA Publishing 2023 PB 250pp $32.99

Note: Entries for the 2024 Dorothy Hewett Award open on 1 November 2023.

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Eta Draconis from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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