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The Inland Sea

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A young Australian woman unable to find her footing in the world begins to break down when the emergencies she hears working as a 911 operator and the troubles within her own life gradually blur together, forcing her to grapple with how the past has shaped her present.

Drifting after her final year in college, a young writer begins working part-time as an emergency dispatch operator in Sydney. Over the course of an eight-hour shift, she is dropped into hundreds of crises, hearing only pieces of each. Callers report car accidents and violent spouses and homes caught up in flame.

The work becomes monotonous: answer, transfer, repeat. And yet the stress of listening to far-off disasters seeps into her personal life, and she begins walking home with keys in hand, ready to fight off men disappointed by what they find in neighboring bars. During her free time, she gets black-out drunk, hooks up with strangers, and navigates an affair with an ex-lover whose girlfriend is in their circle of friends.

Two centuries earlier, her great-great-great-great-grandfather—the British explorer John Oxley—traversed the wilderness of Australia in search of water. Oxley never found the inland sea, but the myth was taken up by other men, and over the years, search parties walked out into the desert, dying as they tried to find it.

Interweaving a woman's self-destructive unraveling with the gradual worsening of the climate crisis, The Inland Sea is charged with unflinching insight into our age of anxiety. At a time when wildfires have swept an entire continent, this novel asks what refuge and comfort looks like in a constant state of emergency.

272 pages, Paperback

First published January 12, 2021

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Madeleine Watts

5 books45 followers

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 230 reviews
Profile Image for Michael Livingston.
795 reviews252 followers
March 27, 2020
A bleak book about a young woman's life slowly falling apart as climate-driven disasters loom. There's a desperation to this book that resonated with me - the struggle to find meaning when the future looks so bleak and the temptation to push beyond boundaries to try to feel something. There's a grubbiness to the city and to the characters' lives that reminded me of Andrew McGahan's Praise, with the added desperation of climate-induced societal breakdown. There were times where it felt maybe *too* autobiographical and I'm not sure the Oxley inland sea sections really worked, but it's an impressively assured debut.
Profile Image for John Gilbert.
928 reviews102 followers
June 29, 2022
3.5 stars, excellent writing pulled it up.

This was an interesting and confronting read. This is the third book nominated for the Miles Franklin Award this year that I have read. I really wanted to like our protagonist/narrator more than I did, but she made so many poor and self harming choices with her life, that she was hard to identify with. Leaving Sydney University in the midst of her PHD, our narrator takes a job as a 000 phone dispatcher to save money to go overseas. Fascinating and heartbreaking all the trauma she must deal with every day in 8 hour shifts. And the abuse of her body, too much drinking, too much unprotected sex, too much not particularly taking good care of herself.

'And I remember that I hated that body. My body. I hated it for shivering. I hated that my mind was not divisible from it's form. I hated that both mind and body had caused me pain. And that someone could want the form of the body but not the quivering thing inside. I remember the grief of that thought, the sheer, pathetic weight of it as it struck me.'

And behind the scenes, climate change and the tragedy happening to our planet and possible outcomes. Yes a confronting, but interesting read that will stay with me or a long time.
Profile Image for switterbug (Betsey).
844 reviews809 followers
May 19, 2021
“The open wilderness of adulthood stretched ahead like so much wasteland,” states the unnamed narrator, a recent university graduate in Sydney and aspiring writer, on page one. Every page seems to have a motif, metaphor, or parallel in this eco-climate-fiction bildungsroman. This red-haired, ironic, vulnerable, and reckless young protagonist spends the searing heat-wave summer of 2013 answering calls at a distress dispatch center, answering, “Emergency police, fire, or ambulance,” making sure to keep her voice neutral and impersonal. She’s the thrice-great granddaughter of John Oxley, an explorer from the 1800s who spent much of his life searching for the mythical inland sea of Australia (millions of years too late—as it had dried up that long ago). That mythical inland sea is now a dry, hot red centre.

The protagonist indulges in blackout drinking, unprotected sex, and hazardous hook ups with an ex- whom she fictionally named Lachlan, like the sea that Oxley traveled. Oxley and his ilk, who “believed in the warm, wet center opening its legs out there is the heart of the dead, dry country,” is a perfect parallel of the male violence to the land during 19th century exploration, and the predatory male that is often accepted now, by women who “ask for it,” as the narrator hears a co-worker spew. There’s a lot of symmetry in this novel that ties the narrator’s body to bodies of land and water. Bodies hot, planet ringed with fire. And everyone/thing defies their parameters.

As she saves up to leave Australia for California, a place she chose “because it is nothing to do with me,” she engages in evermore self-destructive behavior as she recollects key events of her childhood—her father’s drug-addiction, his abuse of her mother, her mother’s heavy drinking, land destruction in the fires of '94, and the protagonist’s current precarious but regulated relationship with her mother now.

Although the climate disasters of 2013 are heady, I was swept away with how Watts drew the portrait of her main character—so intimate and also simultaneously veiled and apart, especially dispossessed of herself. She knew that she was reckless—the bruises on her body from sex, chunks of hair loss from stress, and her emotional state from being with her ex, and yet she tries to treat it all as endurable. Lachlan is an insufferable, indecisive young man, who sleeps beneath a poster of Patrick White. He is also a struggling writer, and holds her back emotionally, as she allows it. Simultaneously restrained and yet lacking boundaries in this endless summer of emergencies, “Emergency police, fire, or ambulance.”

You could write a thesis on this novel, heavy with allusions and paradox, but teeming on every page, I feel, with the narrator’s search for safety in the danger, a strong line not to cross. “My mother could not give me a self-contained narrative. ...In a narrative there would be a clear ending. The scene would fade to black, the curtain would come down, the paragraph would break. ...But our lives contain no line breaks...real life is just sheer bloody continuity.” “The excruciating thing is that time carries on and you love them anyway.”

Watts brilliantly closes in on the theme of bodies and boundaries, both personal and earthly, and the accelerating crisis in both. Male predators, casual misogyny, penetration. We’ve ravaged the land, and climate crisis is raging with disasters; the young woman is calling out soundlessly for help as she watches this unfold. The heat climbs and fires jump their containments. No boundaries, no safety. Hair on fire. A phenomenal novel I could read again and again and get something new out of it every time. I barely touched the surface here.
Profile Image for Kate Cuthbert.
166 reviews9 followers
July 27, 2020
The writing in this novel is exquisite and I very much look forward to seeing what Madeleine Watts does next, but this languid story of a young woman coming apart over a hot Sydney summer didn't work for me. The two central metaphors: the expedition for the inland sea and the escalating climate crisis were not realised in any meaningful way, which set the core narrative adrift. I also found the central tension uneven. As a result, while I can recognise the technical skill with which this novel is written, I never connected with the story.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,669 reviews2,658 followers
March 28, 2020
“Emergency police fire, or ambulance?” The young female narrator of this debut novel lives in Sydney and works for Australia’s emergency call service. Over her phone headset she gets appalling glimpses into people’s worst moments: a woman cowers from her abusive partner; a teen watches his body-boarding friend being attacked by a shark. Although she strives for detachment, her job can’t fail to add to her anxiety – already soaring due to the country’s flooding and bush fires.

Against that backdrop of natural disasters, a series of minor personal catastrophes play out. The narrator is obsessed with a rape/murder case that’s dominating the television news, and narrowly escapes sexual assault herself. She drinks to excess, keeps hooking up with her ex-boyfriend, Lachlan, even after he gets a new girlfriend, and seems to think abortion and the morning after pill are suitable methods of birth control. Irresponsible to the point of self-sabotage, she’s planning a move to London but in the meantime is drifting through life, resigned to the fact that there is no unassailable shelter and no surefire way to avoid risk.

The title comes from the quest of John Oxley (presented here as the narrator’s ancestor), who in 1817 searched for a water body in the Australian interior. Quotations from his journals and discussions of the work of Patrick White, the subject of Lachlan’s PhD thesis, speak to the search for an Australian identity. But the inland sea is also the individual psyche, contradictory and ultimately unknowable. Like a more melancholy version of Jenny Offill’s Weather or a more cosmic autofiction than Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist, this is a timely, quietly forceful story of how women cope with concrete and existential threats.

Originally published on my blog, Bookish Beck.
Profile Image for Jenna.
249 reviews77 followers
February 7, 2021
2021 Reading Women Challenge #19: Cover designed by a woman. (Jaya Miceli - she is amazing and has definitely designed books you’ve seen and probably some books you’ve read too - and probably her cover helped make you want to read it.)
(I only loved this book on the outside, unfortunately.)
Profile Image for Jill.
1,188 reviews1,689 followers
May 19, 2021

“Because the thing was, if you didn’t believe in an inland sea and all that ripe promise of the landscape, you might then have to face what you’d done—set up home on this drought-ridden ancientness that you‘d stolen and didn’t understand. A land all dead grass and fire and pestilence. A ruined Eden you had convinced yourself, in some fever dream, to stake a future on.”

Our nameless narrator, an aspiring writer who works at Australia’s Triple Zero all center—think of it as a 911 center—is gradually becoming disassociated from the feelings that threaten to rage like wildfires within her. Day after day, she answers emergency calls from frantic Australians who are on the verge of death or catastrophe.

When she is not at the center, she pursues a man who is living with a “good woman” yet cannot contain the wildfire of lust he feels for her. Desperately, the two of them crave the bodily release that gives their lives immediacy and meaning. Yet after they’re done, he sweeps up and hides the strands of her fiery red hair.

Our narrator is ravaged as she skirts with danger: unprotected sex, swims in riptides, and the alcohol that pervades her life. Self-flagellating and yearning for escape (she is saving to flee to America to possibly save her own life), the narrator can be startingly intimate or maddeningly distant (particularly to herself).

Juxtaposed with this story are parallels to the climatological disaster in Australia. The sun beats down relentlessly and the wildfires are coming. The threat of climate change is never far away. Tales of the narrator’s ancestor, the British explorer John Oxley, are regularly interspersed. Two centuries ago, Oxley went in search for the water of an inland sea and never found it. His search was repeated by other explorers who died trying to find it.

The inland sea, then, is a dangerous fever dream luring those that seek it to self-destruction and despair. When our narrator tells us, “I want to show you my most treasured dead sea of the interior,” she is sharing something profound with us. This novel works on so many levels and is must reading.
Profile Image for Kasa Cotugno.
2,409 reviews489 followers
August 20, 2021
We get to know the narrator intimately, every thought, every choice (not all of them wise at all), her innate brilliance tamped under by her reckless behavior. This is her gap year, although such times are usually for personal growth but not so self-destructive. By withholding her name, she maintains a distance. We only know her as a paradox -- her fiery side evident in her Titian hair, her vulnerability in her easily bruised skin that shows all insults whether she remembers how they originated or not. Hard to believe that this is a debut novel even though the author has been honored for other works, and hard to believe this didn't receive more publicity than it did. Life in an Australia under climactic assault is presented unflinchingly with reference to the narrator's ancestor John Oaxley, an actual explorer of the early 19th century who sought the titular Inland Sea of Australia. Interspersed with accounts of the effects of climate change and increasingly prevalent 1,000 year old storms, this is one of my favorites of the year.
Profile Image for Jeanette (Ms. Feisty).
2,179 reviews1,945 followers
January 17, 2021
The future is coming, and it doesn't look good.

This author has some impressive writing chops, so it was worth reading the book just for that. But the plot doesn't really go anywhere. Basically, we have an unnamed narrator, a young Australian woman, who is concerned about the looming consequences of climate change. Apparently she has decided to drown her worries in drunkenness and promiscuity. She pretty much screws any guy who's interested. She has a job as a Triple Zero operator (like 911 in America), which causes her even more anxiety, resulting in even more drinking and random sex. And chlamydia. And morning-after pills. And a decision to make a drastic change in her life, which I hope will shake her out of her malaise and make her reconsider risky behaviors.
Profile Image for Olivia.
258 reviews20 followers
May 2, 2020
What a wild novel. I'm not sure that it succeeds perfectly at everything it attempts to do but it attempts so much. The climate change and gendered violence connection was, at times, a bit reductive and more could have been done (e.g. anything) to confront the recurrent Eurocentric view of the environment throughout the novel. But at the end of the day, it's given me a lot to think about and I have just not been able to get this book off my mind. Absolutely electric writing and I'll be looking to pick up whatever Watts puts out next.
Profile Image for Jennifer (JC-S).
2,964 reviews202 followers
July 24, 2021
‘The open wilderness of adulthood stretched ahead like so much wasteland.’

Two hundred years ago, British explorer John Oxley travelled west in Australia looking for an inland sea. He never found it, but myth of an inland sea led others to explore, and some to their deaths.

Now, in the present, John Oxley’s great-great-great granddaughter is drifting. She works as an emergency dispatch operator in Sydney answering and directing triple zero calls. In the wider Australian world, disaster follows disaster: heat, flood, tremor, and wildfire. In her world, she drifts between self-destructive behaviours. She (we don’t learn her name) might feel safe in the water, but her world is increasingly unstable.

‘A look of doubt came across my mother’s face. It was all there in her expression. The knowledge that a person can become lost in their life, how you might swim in the waters and each the lifebuoys.’

She treats her anxiety by self-medicating with alcohol, by risky encounters, by seeking detachment. If the world is dying, what hope do people have? What will the future look like? Will her happiness be as elusive as the inland sea?

The novel finishes, with our young narrator preparing to flee from Australia. Will she find what she needs?

What an uncomfortable, thought-provoking read this is. I am left wondering …

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Profile Image for Athene Alleck.
174 reviews
November 18, 2020
I really wanted to love this book. The descriptions of Sydney were brilliant- like old photos ... but the story was lost, the pain sharp but confusing, and the references to the inland sea & history & climate change felt random.
Profile Image for Kim.
870 reviews88 followers
August 19, 2021
2020 Miles Franklin Short-list
3.5 Stars
I really expected that I would enjoy this more than I did. But it wasn't quite what I was expecting. I thought there would be more mention of the historic search for the inland sea but it seems more like a contemporary inward search by a young women, who seems a bit at sea with her life.
The emergency call role and how it effected her was interesting, but overall I don't think the story will stay with me at all.
It might possibly be my mood, but it didn't resonate with me at all, somehow, I finished it but not sure if I should have bothered now.
Profile Image for Fern Timpson.
32 reviews2 followers
December 10, 2020
Just wasn't really my thing. As others have said there isn't much plot, which isn't a bad thing in principle, and the book was the right length considering that (not too long). It also had ideas and themes that sound good individually (themes of climate change and her heritage as the descendant of a great explorer) but I personally thought the trying-to-link-them-together was forced and disjointed at times.

230 reviews1 follower
August 9, 2020
This could of been a interesting book about Australia - it's history, climate, natural disasters, the treatment of women. I loathed Lachlan and felt repulsed about the narrators self obsession & narcissism. Rebel without a cause.
Profile Image for Tundra.
683 reviews30 followers
March 8, 2021
Madeleine Watts captures the bleak despair that accompanies a life that seems adrift and without purpose - a young women wondering what is next. Her summer is fuelled by a seemingly self destructive tendency despite her own awareness of the cost of her behaviour. Watts looks back into the past through explorers like Oxley - have we always sought what is imagined - like an inland sea? Through a hot Sydney summer, where there is a sense of foreboding, climate change sparks an increased threat of fires and alcohol fuels violence. The abduction and murder that Watts repeatedly refers to was an event that shocked and caught national media attention in Australia and drove home the fear that we are all vulnerable to such violence. It came amidst a swathe of horrific domestic abuse situations, that seem to continue despite the public conversations and campaigns to end it. I wasn’t completely satisfied by the ending of this novel but overall it was compelling and sharp.
Profile Image for Tina.
697 reviews108 followers
January 18, 2021
THE INLAND SEA by Madeleine Watts is an absorbing debut novel! We follow a young Australian woman as she navigates her life after college and a pseudo break up while working at an emergency call centre. Throughout the book the anxiety intensifies as we learn about her past, her ongoing life choices and the climate change that affects everything. The writing took a bit to get used to as there are no quotation marks used for the dialogue but I liked the symmetry in the way her life unfolded to the weather disasters to her work. Watts is a talented writer to make me care about this character even though I didn’t agree with her choices. It was interesting to read about life in Australia and I would definitely read Watt’s next book!
Thank you to Catapult for this review copy!
Profile Image for Carlos.
347 reviews4 followers
January 22, 2021
I have never have read a book so sharp, with words so pointy that hurt all over your skin, crawling inside you.
Madeleine has written a fine description of a woman in turmoil, with a fire raging inside her and nowhere in sight is a bucket of water to extinguish it.
I would love to read more fine voices from down under if they are as focused and clear as the voice that is driving this narrative.
Good read.
Profile Image for Cass Moriarty.
Author 2 books174 followers
July 14, 2020
The Inland Sea (One / Pushkin Press 2020), the debut novel by Madeleine Watts, is not at all what I expected. From the blurb, I was prepared for an historical story about explorer John Oxley travailing the wilderness of central Australia in the 19th century, searching for water and the myth of the inland sea, but rather than this being the central tenet of the story, it is only a touchstone for the main narrative which is set in the present day and concerns Oxley’s great-great-great-granddaughter and her search for meaning in a 20-something coming of age story. While Watts does refer back periodically to the historical aspect, it is a way of saying something profound about humanity’s search for that which eludes us, and our frequent optimism that there is something ‘out there’ if only we could find it.
This book reminded me very much of Ronnie Scott’s recent novel The Adversary, and if you enjoyed that, you will almost certainly like The Inland Sea. The language is beautiful – literary, languid prose that meanders along from time to time, and from place to place, stepping lightly over the structure of plot and concentrating more on the stream of consciousness revelations of the characters. In fact, in terms of plot, not much happens – the book is more about connections, thought and ruminations.
There is one particularly beautiful page that stood out for me – page 123. It begins: ‘Certain promises are made to us as children. Only in adulthood does it begin to dawn on us that many of those promises cannot be kept.’ It continues until the final paragraph: ‘But our lives contain no line breaks. Our experiences are so frequently unbearable to us because real life is just sheer bloody continuity. The excruciating thing is not to have witnessed the person you love commit, upon your person or another’s, an unforgiveable act. The excruciating thing is that time carries on and you love them anyway.’ I found this whole section quite profound.
The protagonist works as a call centre operator for triple zero, and the ongoing daily drama of emergencies remains the backdrop to her own life of self-destructive behaviours, drinking too much, sleeping with strangers and continuing an on again / off again affair with a man she knows is not good for her. The novel also charts her sexuality and problems with contraception (or the result of its lack) – another area of her life that seems to spin beyond her control. The ties between the triple zero emergencies and the increasing fires, floods and violence of nature that seem to be escalating are also explored. There is a section towards the end that focuses on climate change and environmental disaster and it felt somewhat tacked on, almost as if the author decided to include that aspect as an afterthought; I could see what she was doing but don’t feel that it quite worked.
But despite that, this novel is eloquent and contemplative, at times dreamlike and at other times full of frank and unflinching questioning. It is a novel about yearning and longing, both for what we imagine might be out there and for what we think we might want. The thirst of the early explorers is replicated in the thirst of the contemporary characters for all the seemingly unattainable desires in their lives. It is a study of character and, like The Adversary, of the many small details that make up a life; the myriad decisions, thoughts and behaviours that map out our path.
Profile Image for Kimberly.
732 reviews26 followers
January 14, 2021
"The Inland Sea" by Madeleine Watts is the story of a young woman who is in crisis, against the backdrop of a planet that is also in crisis due to climate change. Though the writing was exquisite, there really wasn't much of a plot and I had a difficult time figuring out the point of it all. I really wanted to love this book because of the top-notch writing, but much of the story felt random and disconnected to me. I think others will absolutely love this book, but because I prefer more of a plot, it just wasn't for me.
Profile Image for Lel Budge.
1,397 reviews26 followers
February 13, 2020
Set in Australia, the narrator has just finished university and gets a job in an emergency dispatch call centre. Where she has drifted along in her safe little world, she starts to feel there is danger around every corner.

She meets an ex, Lachlan and wonders what if? What could be?

This is a tale of love, loss, loneliness and the daily fear of things beyond our control.

It is a beautifully written, almost poetic tale of a young woman and her coming of age, her realisation that the world is slowly falling apart. From climate change, Bush fires, personal drama and an overall feeling of disquiet.

I found this to be a gentle read, dreamy but with this feeling of unease too. Brilliant, thought provoking, slightly melancholy and really gently captivating.

Thank you to Poppy Stimpson at Pushkin Press for the opportunity to read The Inland Sea for free. This is my honest and unbiased review.
Profile Image for Kim.
1,284 reviews99 followers
November 17, 2020
Unsettling. The main character was not relatable to me at first, but as the story progressed that changed. The lines blurred between reality and fiction as well as history and future. To be honest I wasn't expecting so much depth to this book. I guess it snuck up on me.

Keep thinking about Oxley and his theories as well as the suggestion that he was both too late and too early. Aren't we all?

My copy was provided by NetGalley for review.
Profile Image for Susie Anderson.
265 reviews10 followers
March 22, 2020
i read in this the kind of intimate honesty about place that is only possible from a distance. while it's one of the best aspects of this book, perhaps it was demonstrated through fashionable and thus cold prose that occasionally got me offside. there is no real warmth or redemption in this book, and i liked it.
Profile Image for Char Furniss.
80 reviews31 followers
November 30, 2020
A very clever book. Some really lovely writing. Not one for people who need a really meaty plot, it was lacking in this respect.
Some really important issues that were linked together in a very interesting way.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,737 reviews673 followers
December 28, 2020
I have spent remarkably little time reading books over Christmas, thanks to a sudden addiction to The Untamed (a Chinese TV series about beautiful wizards). This was the last book I finished before that kicked in and it didn't quite live up to my hopes. I am always eager for climate change fiction and the blurb of 'The Inland Sea' was very appealing. However, it implied that the narrative would parallel John Oxley (a 19th century explorer who hypothesised the inland sea of the title) with his great-great-great granddaughter (an emergency dispatch operator). This was not the case, John Oxley is hardly mentioned and the plot is entirely set in a pre-pandemic now. It is rather like a female version of Solar and The Lamentations of Zeno - both novels that purport to be about climate change but are really centre on an individual's unfortunate life choices. The protagonist of 'The Inland Sea' is highly self-destructive, constantly drinking heavily and having unprotected sex. Her job gives her insight into the destructiveness of increasingly extreme weather; these parts of the book were vivid and compelling. Her disastrous personal life, seemingly linked to childhood trauma, was simply depressing. As a reader I reacted much like her close female friends:

The frustrating thing from Maeve's perspective was that interventions from one's friends on behalf of morality, or goodness, or our well-being, matter so very little. I know now as I did then that it was incredibly fucking stupid to be sleeping with him again. And I know that our friends have little sympathy when we stick our hand in the fire again, when they've nursed us through the burns the first time around. Because why?
It's never easy to say, because I want it, and have that be enough.
I could have explained that I knew I wouldn't last, indeed, I didn't expect it to. I didn't expect it would end well, or that we wouldn't hurt one another. It was simply that I didn't care.

Re-reading that, maybe her love life is supposed to be an extended metaphor for climate change? If so, in this metaphor heterosexuality is capitalism. Perhaps I was reading the whole thing too literally. It seemed to invite that with visceral details, though. I did appreciate the writing, despite expecting more of a parallel between history and present. I wish Watts had done more with the fascinating concept that gives the novel its title:

And so Sturt proposed an expedition into the interior. Twenty-seven years after Oxley's journey, Sturt, filled with conviction, led an expedition into the desert along with a twenty-five-foot whaleboat and two ex-sailors to man it. The wastes got barren and the rivers petered out into salt plains, but Sturt was ever hopeful. Space was made for conquering. The desert had to be other than empty. The river must flow backwards for a reason.
And so his men died.

On balance, I found 'The Inland Sea' interesting but don't think it succeeds as a climate change novel. I much preferred Weather by Jenny Offill, which is quite similar in style but more insightful.
Profile Image for Beth McCallum.
257 reviews205 followers
March 14, 2022
trigger warnings:

"But our lives contain no line breaks. Our experiences are so frequently unbearable to us because real life is just sheer bloody continuity... The excruciating thing is that time carries on and you love them anyway."

This book. THIS BOOK. Wow. I don't even want to write an in-depth review because there are so many wonderful reviews on this book already. People have written them much better than I ever could.

This book is basically about climate change, but it's woven into how the main character responds to her circumstances (which are awful). I loved how she compared love to healing the planet, and how the fires and the phone calls and the ringing - contrast ringing - became a metaphor for her trauma and vice versa.

Overall, if you want to read a literary fiction medium/fast-paced novel about a new adult who is anxious about climate change and relationships and her trauma, then this is the book for you.
Profile Image for Melissa.
34 reviews
April 21, 2020
"The open wilderness of adulthood stretched ahead like so much wasteland."

This novel really got me. I'm a similar age to the protagonist, am a writer (of sorts) like her, have had similar experiences with men, and I live in Sydney. I was geared to enjoy this before I even started and I very much did. Though it took some commitment for me to really get into, Watts absolutely nails the slow-burning dread of facing a future that's likely to be severely compromised if not destroyed by climate change - which is something I think about every fucking day. Her detailed vision of Sydney after a two-degree spike in temperatures toward the end left me reeling and wide-eyed, and I felt like maybe it was the crux of the book. Because truly, how are we meant to grapple with the future and navigate our relationships with any sense of long-term stability? The Inland Sea goes some of the way to show how one young woman might, drawing historical parallels between her own yearning and need for something more and her colonial ancestor's doomed venture into the heart of Australia to find a mythical sea that would give the fraught colonial project a more noble purpose.

"It made sense that there would be an inland sea. It adhered to fundamental theories of balance. Men like Oxley and Maslen assumed that the land was proportional. When it was at least understood that there was no Eden, no inland sea, that westward the course of Empire would never make its way, and that the island continent did not align with any prevailing theory of reason, then it was felt, if not made a point of law, that the land was just as wild as the kind of woman who's asking for it."

There's a lot of commentary within about English settlement in Australia being manifestly cancerous, deeply exploitative, and doomed too. I've read a bit about intergenerational trauma in Indigenous Australians, so it was interesting to read of the murky flip side: how the female ancestor of John Oxley might still be burdened with his legacy of unquenchable and actually fatal thirst for meaning. And of course she would be - Australia is as 'untameable' now as it was then. To live here is still to live on stolen, hurting land. The parallels between then and now that Watts makes throughout the novel are really compelling and alarming, and take on a feminist existential edge that hit many, many nerves for me.

"A look of doubt came across my mother's face. It was all there in her expression. The knowledge that a person can become lost in their life, how you might swim in the waters and reach for the lifebuoys but never be rescued, might drown out there in the dark ocean of your choices."

Other notes of appreciation: The protagonist is a bit of an asshole, but an honest one (On having an affair with an ex-lover who's cheating on his new girlfriend with her: "It's never easy to say, because I want it, and have that be enough."). I feel I grew to understand her actions well and could sort of imagine being her friend, actually. Also, Watts' ability to evoke Sydney's different localities was really well done, though I can imagine the frequent references to specific streets and places might be a bit grating to somebody who wasn't already familiar with them. That aside, her skill in description is rich and lush and deeply evocative.

I enjoyed this book so much and will be revisiting it later.
Profile Image for Jodi.
376 reviews93 followers
February 22, 2021
The characters in The Inland Sea were pretty unlikeable, very narcissistic and seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction. The female protagonist, who was apparently very well-educated, made some shockingly bad decisions and was promiscuous in the extreme. I certainly hope this wasn't meant to be representative of today's youth.

This book included some interesting, timely themes (the Inland Sea and climate change) but neither was fully realized and, although the Inland Sea would have made an interesting segue, that connection was never really made. In the end, I was left feeling unsettled and a bit confused. Honestly, other than being a catchy title, why was this called The Inland Sea?

Anyway, it's not what I'd call a 'pleasant' read but the writing was quite good so... 3 stars.
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