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Posted on 26 Sep 2019 in Fiction |

LUCY TRELOAR Wolfe Island. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren

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This new novel from the author of Salt Creek is set in a future America that looks disturbingly familiar.

There’s a gloriously metafictional moment in Mel Brooks’s 1987 Star Wars parody Spaceballs when the film’s antagonist, Dark Helmet, attempts to discover where his nemesis is hiding by watching the film Spaceballs on VHS.

Dark Helmet, played by Rick Moranis, and his head lackey fast-forward through the film. Hitting play at a random point, they’re shocked to see the backs of their own heads on the monitor. They recoil, turning to look directly at the camera, back at the monitor – then to the camera again. There’s a pause.

‘What the hell am I looking at?’ Dark Helmet splutters, his every move mirrored by infinite miniature duplicates behind him on the monitor. ‘When does this happen in the movie?’

‘Now,’ his lackey tells him. ‘You’re looking at now, sir. Everything that happens now is happening now.’

‘What happened to then?’ asks Dark Helmet.

‘We passed then.’

“When?’

‘Just now. We’re at now, now.’

There’s a little feverish back-and-forth between the two before Moranis’s character, asks, perplexed, ‘When will then be now?’

I thought about this scene a lot as I read Lucy Treloar’s second novel, Wolfe Island. While Treloar’s Miles Franklin shortlisted debut, Salt Creek, was a work of historical fiction, Wolfe Island is set in a disconcerting future America where the ocean is rising to swallow the land. At first glance, the two novels share very little in common. But Treloar’s future doesn’t feel futuristic. Wolfe Island might be a novel about the future, but it’s written in a disorienting, sepia-tinted past tense, and populated with characters named as if they’ve been plucked from another era entirely: Bette, Hartford, Tobermory. Wolfe Island is climate-change fiction that reads like historical fiction. It’s brilliant. It’s also quietly terrifying. And every page left me wondering: when will then be now?

Wolfe Island is slowly falling into the sea, ‘like dominoes lined up’. Even the dead are gone, their bones rescued and relocated to the mainland years ago when the rising seawater threatened to wash them from their graves.

The island’s last remaining resident is Kitty Hawke, who despite her name, feels no need to take flight. Her daughter and husband estranged, her son gone, Kitty remains stubbornly behind with only her wolfdog, Girl, for company. Together they take stock of the disappearing island’s edges, salvaging curiosities from the mainland that have washed ashore and collecting materials for Kitty’s sculptures – she calls them her ‘makings’ – which are shipped to the mainland for exhibitions. Not that Kitty pays much attention to anything that happens on the mainland.

It’s not long before the mainland comes to Kitty. A tiny boat appears on the horizon ahead of a storm, bringing with it Kitty’s teenage granddaughter, Catalina, and her boyfriend, Josh. There’s also a frightened young girl named Alejandra, and her older brother, Luis.

Kitty hasn’t seen her granddaughter for years, but she knows instinctively that Cat is in trouble. Though she values her silence and her space, Kitty agrees to take them in, even though Cat dodges every one of Kitty’s questions about why they’ve come.

Kitty might not know much about the outside world, but she has her suspicions about why Cat is in hiding. When strangers arrive on the island asking questions about Alejandra and Luis, Kitty knows she must protect her granddaughter – even if it means abandoning the island she’s loved for so long. But on the mainland, tensions are high and compassion is rare. As surely as Kitty’s home is sinking into the sea, America is descending inevitably into chaos.

‘I had thought Wolfe small and the world large,’ Kitty muses during her travels on the mainland. ‘It was the opposite.’ This observation might take Kitty by surprise, but it shouldn’t shock the reader. Wolfe Island itself feels like a condensed world of its own – or rather, the memory of a world. Through Kitty, we learn the island’s history: the names of the generations of families who lived and died there and the grudges they held, and about the tree that used to stand in the centre of the island, a landmark visible from the water. When just one island disappears beneath the waves, when its people leave and begin new lives on dry land, a whole world ceases to exist.

Once Kitty and her companions leave the island, the novel takes on a more urgent, relentless pace. What’s exceptional about Treloar’s worldbuilding in Wolfe Island is the way she wields it so selectively. There’s no neat exposition to tell us why people on the mainland are so suspicious of Kitty and her accent, or why she and Cat are careful to keep Alejandra and Luis out of sight whenever they stop for supplies. Instead, we see the way Kitty’s every interaction with a stranger is fraught with suspicion; the way she and her companions are questioned in supermarkets, eyed with mistrust in fast food restaurants.  And the way everyone carries a gun – including Kitty.

In the author’s note at the end of Salt Creek, Treloar describes her debut novel as ‘a lament for a lost world’. The same could be said for Wolfe Island. But here, the world isn’t lost. The then of this novel hasn’t yet become our now, even though it feels unsettlingly closer every day. Wolfe Island is a haunting snapshot of a world caught on the edge of a crucial moment. It’s sinister and unwavering, but at the same time as tender as a lament.

Lucy Treloar Wolfe Island Pan Macmillan 2019 PB 400pp $29.99

Michelle McLaren lives in Melbourne and is a fiction co-editor for Verity La. She blogs about books, time travel and nice, hot cups of tea at Book to the Future (www.booktothefuture.com.au).

You can buy Wolfe Island 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.