Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 30, 2019

Wolfe Island, by Lucy Treloar

Wolfe Bay, set in the indeterminate near future, is a bleak book: it foreshadows the annihilation of home due to the rising oceans.  However what it also shows is that catastrophe can bring out both the best and worst in people, often to their own surprise.

In a departure from the Australian setting of the award-winning Salt Creek (see my review) the central character of this novel lives in America.  Kitty Hawke lives alone on high ground on (fictional*) Wolfe Island in Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, where she creates art from the debris of summer houses lost to the sea. She is estranged from her husband and daughter on the mainland, and her son has died in circumstances not revealed until late in the book.  She is not self-sufficient because the rising salt affects her attempts to grow vegetables, so she travels occasionally to the mainland to buy supplies and to sell her art to her agent.  But other than that she has very little contact with other people and she likes it that way.

Over at the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, Caroline Lodge has been posting all month about older women in literature. It’s hard to know how much traction this initiative has had, but the reasons for it are obvious: the depiction of older women tends to be stereotypical even amongst contemporary authors.  But that’s not a trap Lucy Treloar has fallen into…

It’s not quite clear how old Kitty is because both her daughter and granddaughter were/are very young mothers.  But Kitty has acquired the patina of the older woman through her lifestyle.  She lives independently on an island that everyone else has abandoned, and to the people on the mainland, she seems eccentric.  Her husband is baffled by her defection: he does not understand her creative impulse.  She lives for her art; she is wholly absorbed by it.  She thinks about creating her ‘makings’ as she takes her walks over what’s left of the island, and she ‘disappears’ for days on end when creating.

With weather-beaten skin and hair, Kitty dresses as she pleases, for comfort and practicality, with no thought of fashion or pleasing others.  While warmth is crucial to survival in the hostile weather, food and cooking is not important to her, not unless it becomes a source of comfort to others, and she has had to compromise anyway because some foods are no longer available. She has had her share of threats from men who’d thought she was vulnerable and learned otherwise, and she’s experienced their cowardly forms of revenge that take place when she isn’t there.  Her armour is her mature acceptance of things she cannot change.  The past is there, and there is much to regret and be blamed for, but it cannot be changed.

Because she lives alone, she has become a little set in her ways.  But she is strong and capable, and she’s a quick thinker.  Crucially, she can adapt to changing circumstances, and as the plot progresses she reveals latent skills (including some that shock) and a capacity for strategy.  What surprises her, because she has done without love and family for so long, is her own resurgent love for the people that matter to her.

The catalyst for change is the unexpected arrival of three adolescents and a child. Kitty’s granddaughter Cat has brought her boyfriend Josh, and they need to lie low from some kind of unspecified activism for a while. With them are siblings Luis and Alejandra, who are ‘runners’, part of a phenomenon that is reminiscent of the migration crisis in the US. (Or anywhere else that has shut its borders and is actively expelling ‘illegals’). Their mother has been captured in circumstances not explained till late in the novel, and Luis uses the internet at Kitty’s place to search for answers and solutions, while little Alejandra — suffering some kind of post-traumatic anxiety — gradually learns to make friends with Kitty’s wolfdog Girl and to trust Kitty as a protector.

The presence of these four on the island, however, changes everything.  The origins of Luis and Alejandra are never specified, but the spelling of their names suggests that they are illegal immigrants (i.e. without papers) from the south.  Their quest to reach the north suggests Canada with its humane response to the migrant crisis, as a refuge. In the remote area of the novel, such refugees are hunted not only by the authorities, but also by hostile males armed with powerful guns.  These men have a frontier mentality and they know that the murder of people without papers will have no consequences.  When Cat and Josh continue their reckless activism, events escalate, tearing Kitty out of her comfort zone and triggering actions that she had never anticipated.

This harrowing narrative is propelled along by a quest for safety among hostile people and an unpredictable environment.  The waters closing in on Kitty’s island are no metaphor.  Readers know (from the Pacific Island Forum, if they didn’t before) that rising oceans are encroaching on island communities, and though what’s different about Treloar’s scenario is that Wolfe Island is a summer holiday destination rather than a community’s only home, the hostility to people seeking a new place to live is no fantasy.  In a welcoming place called Freedom, Kitty asks herself, ‘what makes these people so different?’  Later, she learns that they are welcoming to people in transit, not to anyone who wants to stay.

I have barely scratched the surface of the opportunities for discussion in this powerful new title.  There are not many reviews around at the moment because the book has only just been released, but Marie Matteson at Readings loved it too.

*There are two Wolfe Islands in Canada, one in Ontario and the other in Nova Scotia, but Chesapeake Bay is in is an estuary in the U.S. states of Maryland and Virginia.  Its waters exit to the Atlantic Ocean.  As far as I can tell from an internet search, there is no Wolfe Bay in Chesapeake Bay.

Author: Lucy Treloar
Title: Wolfe Island
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2019, 389 pages
ISBN: 9781760553159
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia

Available from Fishpond: Wolfe Island. You can also buy it as an eBook from the Macmillan website.

 


Responses

  1. I loved ‘Salt Creek’. I’ll add this to my list. Thank you for sharing.

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    • Yes, I loved it too. The Coorong is such a special place:)

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  2. I still haven’t read Salt Creek, so I haven’t read this review past para 2, but it’s good to see her with another book out.

    BTW Kitty Hawke, immediately brought to mind Kitty Hawk in North Carolina where the Wright Brothers did their first plane flight. I guess there’s no sense that her name was chosen with that in mind?

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  3. The naming is explained right at the very beginning of the book: “My father always said with a name like Kitty Hawke I’d surely fly away.”
    But, to be honest, I think this rather forced choice of name is the one false note in an otherwise pitch-perfect narrative.

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  4. Wow, this sounds like a must read for me. I love books with a good narrative but with plenty of meaty issues

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    • Yes, I think you’ll like this one.

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      • unfortunately not . having much luck tracking it down in the UK. Might have to contact the publishers direct

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        • I know it sounds b8izarre, but try Gallic Books – they published her previous one in the UK.

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  5. Fantastic review. I have this but just haven’t gotten to it yet. Very soon!

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  6. I like that contemporary Lit.Fic has so wholeheartedly embraced dystopian, hard not to I suppose without being willfully blind. A shame that an Australian author has chosen not to depict Australia/Australians (the refugees could have been making their way to NZ – I know I would). Salt Creek is still unread on the shelves behind me, so much catching up to do. (I’m currently re-reading Tasma, so I guess it’s no-one’s fault but my own).

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    • According to Jane Rawson in The Handbook, the wilfully rich have already bought up anything congenial in Tasmania and NZ.
      I wonder if there’s a writer out there working on a novel about Pacific nations refugees ‘invading’ Australia because their islands are under water.
      I do find myself wondering what form their anger might take…

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  7. Thank you so much for another fabulous review, Lisa! Salt Creek was a stunner and thanks to you, her new novel is definitely on the list of books to read!

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  8. […] women and five set in America by women (two of which were by Australian women, Toni Jordan and Lucy Treloar) but to get a pass on this I would have to mess around a lot with the geography and I cannot be […]

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