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Posted on 5 Jun 2018 in Fiction | 2 comments

CATHERINE MCKINNON Storyland. Reviewed by Tracy Sorensen

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Storyland carries us into new imaginative places – past, present and future.

‘To dare is to do!’ The 15-year-old cabin boy repeats this mantra when terror, like a giant black wave, threatens to overwhelm him.

The boy is William Martin, and he’s aboard a tiny open sailing boat, the Tom Thumb, to provide general services to English explorers George Bass and Matthew Flinders. In 1796, the three sail away from the fledgling penal colony huddled around the already-fouled Tank Stream looking for fresh water a little further south.

William Martin is a historical figure about whom little is known beyond bare mentions in the explorers’ journals. In Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland, the boy’s voice rings clear and true, as if rescued from the very air off the Illawarra coast. His young mind and body are alive and sensitive to water, sky and land, to the shifting moods of his employers, and the desperate thirst that overtakes them all. There is smoke in the trees ashore, and men with spears appearing on the beaches. To dare is to do!

But just as the boy’s story is about to reach boiling-point, a bird steals the very sentence on the page, half-way through, and drops it down in the middle of the story of a rough and maddened convict guarding a field of corn on the shores of Lake Illawarra in 1822. And so we go, dipping into stories that are already in mid-flight, forward into the 20th century, then the 21st, always circling back to this particular place on earth with its fish-shaped rock, its caves, its sea, its creeks.

The place anchors the stories together, but it’s not just the place: there are objects and bloodlines and memories that also weave them together. Each story carries hints of the earlier ones. In this way, the novel surges on, breaking off, jumping forward, until we arrive in the year 2033 with a small group of people struggling to survive the aftermath of a cyclone so big, so fierce, that it might have swept human habitation from this part of the world entirely.

We can’t be sure about that, because now we’re seeing the world through Nada’s eyes, and she is suddenly inside the narrow vision of an apocalyptic nightmare. Communication with the outside world has been cut and she is hiding from starving, murderous gangs. From a tourist lookout she looks over a world of water that just days ago held streets and houses on dry land. Trees are heavy with birds, too many birds, seeking refuge on shrinking land.

It is just 237 years since William Martin’s journey but now the shape of the land itself, its rocks, lake, creeks, ridge and escarpment, are suddenly unrecognisable. It is shocking, but it has been coming for some time:

The year that has just passed, all the news reports, protests, referendums, were about national security, or about individual safety, but as if the threats were elsewhere. Yet the biggest danger came from our home itself, only we didn’t know what our home was. We thought it was bricks and mortar, but a home is more than that, it is land and sea and sky.

Yes, Storyland is cli-fi, or climate fiction, the genre that takes predictions relating to global warming out of the scientific journals and political debate and into the realm of experience, albeit imagined experience. What might it be like to live through the loss and disruption coming down the line? By choosing 2033 as the year everything goes pear-shaped, McKinnon is giving us a slap around the chops: climate chaos could happen in our own lifetimes or the lifetimes of people we know and love.

Storyland might also be said to belong to subset of cli-fi fiction that is responding in form, as well as content, to the challenges of the Anthropocene.

As fellow cli-fi novelist James Bradley has said, the Anthropocene is concerned with deep time, with planetary forces. How do you write about it using the traditional stock-in-trade of the novelist: the smaller elements of character, the domestic, the human scale?

For writers like McKinnon, one way is to refashion the structure of the novel to allow space for deeper time, larger non-human forces. It is about looking for ways to decentre the individual human being, to remind ourselves that the world we live in is not simply a backdrop for our dramas but a player in itself: ‘It was as if the land, the sea, the sky were all living beings rising up in revolt.’

‘Anthropocenic’ writers and artists are explorers, imagining different ways of being in a different world. They are willing to go where few political leaders, stuck as they are in four-year electoral cycles, are willing to take us. They take us to the edge of the map, into the parts labelled Here Be Monsters, and help us to walk among the monsters. Monsters is apt, because for now, at least, the future does not look pretty.

Having said that, Storyland is no postmodern, academic treatise. McKinnon plays with form just enough to carry us into new imaginative places. She decentres individual human beings only up to a point, because while each story is only part of something bigger, each one is beautifully crafted and compelling.

After the cabin boy and the convict we hear from Lola, a young woman running a dairy farm in 1900 whose family is blamed for the disappearance of a dairymaid. Next comes the delightful, idiosyncratic Bel, a ten-year-old girl who rafts around Lake Illawarra in 1998, poking her nose into adult dramas she doesn’t fully understand. Lola’s and Bel’s stories are edgy and unexpected without being unrealistic; each could easily make a fully-fledged novel in its own right.

Again, just as things reach breaking point, it’s time to go: we are carried forward to the climate chaos of 2033 and then, in fleeting intimations, to a time far distant, in 2717, when people – now living on ships – are trying to piece together fragments of stories of an earlier time when human beings lived on a stretch of land called the Illawarra.

And then time moves backwards, back to Bel and Lola and the convict. These individual stories do have endings after all. We find out what happens. It is often savage, but not always. It is life. We go back to where we started, to the cabin boy, to a time when the world seemed fresh and you were laying down new trails for what might become.

‘Tomorrow is unmade,’ says William Martin. This is a novel, not a call to action, but it is hard to avoid the challenge in it. What will we dare to do?

Catherine McKinnnon Storyland HarperCollins 2017 PB 368pp $27.99

Tracy Sorensen is the President of Bathurst Community Climate Action Network and the author of The Lucky Galah (Picador, 2018). She is currently completing a PhD in climate change communication at Charles Sturt University.

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

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.


  1. What a great review Tracy!

  2. A really fabulous review. Just read Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Great Derangement’. Where he talks of the difficulties of writing about climate change in the novel and here we have a wonderful example!!!