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Posted on 12 Aug 2021 in Fiction, SFF |

CLARE MOLETA Unsheltered. Reviewed by Linda Godfrey

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Clare Moleta’s novel canvases big questions as a mother searches for her child in a hostile landscape.

The opening scene of Clare Moleta’s debut novel describes two farmers standing in the rain. Their daughter runs towards them – she’s scared; she’s five years old and has never seen rain before. The family runs an olive farm in Western Australia, but Moleta’s Australia, both familiar and alien, is located in an undated future. The farm is under pressure from all sides. Climate change is making what was a marginal area an unviable one.

Li, the main character, was not sure about bringing her child, Matti, into this world. Her partner, Frank, does most of the child-rearing. When the rain becomes a flood, a neighbour’s child is washed down a stormwater pipe. Everything in this environment is fragile and stressful.

… after the flood came howlers so vicious that the smell of them coming made you freeze up. Then the drought again, then fire. Within two years everything was gone. When Li and Frank and Matti walked out of Nerredin onto the highway all that was left was the pub and the ruin of the old school building.

Survival instincts kick in. All they can do now is try to keep themselves and their child alive and look for somewhere safer to live.

They arrive at a ‘makecamp’, an illegal camp where people congregate, swap skills and survive. Along the way, Frank is killed while working undocumented on a worksite. Li wakes in a makeshift hospital room; the camp has been destroyed by XB Force and she has been badly burnt.

Safia filled in the gaps. XB Force and loud hailers and dogs, batons, studded gloves. Tear gas. Saltwater cannons.

In Li’s absence, Matti has been rounded up with other kids and taken on a bus to a children’s camp. Li is, naturally, distraught. Her daughter is very young and alone. There is no way for Li to find her.

If she gets processed without me, she’ll be an unaccompanied minor. I don’t know where they will send her.

Li is only just able to stand and has not recovered from her injuries when she starts a punishing journey on foot in search of her daughter. Her vision is always that Matti is ahead of her, just out of reach. She keeps her hope alive by remembering how Matti talked about them living on a tropical island she called The Best Place that was in the sheltered area but not so restrictive. The sheltered area is somewhere in the south (never specified) of Australia, a militarised, protected zone, where the climate is ‘liveable’; home to those with money and influence.

Looking for Matti is nearly impossible. Li is given conflicting reports of kids seen travelling in a bus, kids escaping from the bus and beginning their own long walk towards the sheltered zone; reports from mad people who have seen the kids quite close by.

Li is a survivor; she’s resourceful and has useful skills. She walks, she fights, she makes alliances, and she escapes from an internment camp where people are worked as slaves. She has wire so she can trap animals to eat and uses the wire to repair broken equipment and phones. She meets people who abuse her, who rob her, but also people who want to assist her in her quest. When she is seeking information about Matti, she has to pit herself against an indifferent system that lets her use up her phone credit and phone battery until she is timed out.

This narrative taps into all the big topics of the moment: fears about the breakdown of home/country/community on a national scale; refugees fleeing wars and persecution; children separated from their parents and kept in prison camps, people forced to wait for hours on the phone for vital information; the consequences of unchecked climate change; governments more concerned about holding onto power than operating a community for the common good.

All this social and political commentary is pulled along by the thread of the most basic story: a mother’s search for her lost child. And it works brilliantly. All of the big themes can be boiled down to humans wanting to care for their loved ones and their community while living in an unequal society where some have more privileges, more money, more rights, than others. Moleta makes us understand the terror, and the heartache, of searching for a lost child in a hostile environment.

She takes us through Li’s personal, very physically painful journey – her burns, a sprained ankle, a broken ankle, losing all her supplies and clothes along the way. But Li does not stop. There were moments when I did think we had entered James Bond territory, with scenes reminiscent of the way that Bond experiences explosions, fights, gun fights, crashes and falls and emerges with nothing more than a smudge of dirt on his handsome cheek.

Li walks for days through wind storms with her face, head and hands burnt and bound in dirty bandages, but her burns don’t get infected; she walks on a sprained ankle for hundreds of miles, then the same ankle is broken and she keeps going! Just like James Bond, this is more than a superhuman effort; it stretches credibility.

Certainly, this is a book of our time, confronting us with our shared humanity. Unsheltered forces you to consider whether you would open your door and invite someone – or more than one – inside to shelter.

The way Moleta throws readers right in to the middle of the story with no explanations, makes me think of refugees’ experiences when they arrive in a new country knowing nothing of the language or the systems, but have to navigate their way through them all. The discomfort and blind panic evoked at the beginning of the book, as we are introduced to unfamiliar terms and the mysterious forces in charge, is scary and disorientating. It produced for me a better understanding of what outsiders go through when striving for safety.

This dystopian novel could be a call to action. Moleta has written about a very believable future. Are we, as a society and a global community, going to sit on our hands and let it happen? Can we begin to change things now, before the Weather, the Howlers , XB Force and the Agency gain too much power, beat us down and build that wall?

Clare Moleta Unsheltered Scribner 2021 PB 320pp $29.99

Linda Godfrey is a poet, editor and teacher. She lives on Wodi Wodi land, on the south coast of New South Wales.

You can buy Unsheltered 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.

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