“The details of that day continue to shimmer and twist, overlaid by layers of stories. What is memory, what dream, what haunting?”
Dreamtime, by Venetia Welby, opens in September 2035. Sol, an American woman approaching her thirtieth birthday, is nearing the end of her stay in a rehab facility that has weaned her from a drug habit. Sol spent her childhood in a controlling desert commune in Arizona before being taken into care, where she was regarded as troublesome and moved around frequently. Her best friend from her early years, Kit, may be the only person in her life who has not used and abused her. She gravitates towards older men, father figures, hankering after the man who left before she could know him. Her mother has always refused to talk of Sol’s father other than to berate his desertion. When she finally gives up his name and occupation, Sol determines to track him down.
Since leaving the commune, Kit has had a more stable upbringing. He remains damaged by his early experiences, grounding himself by always being there for Sol. When he learns of her plan to travel halfway round the world in order to meet the father she believes she has found via the internet, Kit agrees to accompany her. He is in love with Sol but harbours an unspoken fear that they may share paternity.
“The ever-present suspicion that what he wanted most might never happen was a tinnitus of the soul.”
The near future setting is key. Climate change and man-made pollution have rendered parts of the world all but uninhabitable. Sea levels have risen and ‘natural’ disasters increased in frequency and severity. Commercial flights are to be banned imminently giving Sol and Kit’s journey a time-critical element.
The pair fly to Japan where they discover the virtual world conjured via the internet does not reflect reality. Floods and earthquakes have unleashed pollutants and viruses. Wars and colonisers have all but wiped out indigenous cultures. Americans, who maintain a large military presence in the region, have caused much of the damage yet they mostly remain immune from justice. Those living back in their homeland hear nothing about the desecration wreaked.
“If you can’t trust what you see in the news, isn’t your only choice to live? Seize every experience by the balls. If you thought about the long-term consequence of every action you’d never do anything at all, would you? Terrified into inertia.”
Following the few leads they have, Kit and Sol travel from Tokyo to Okinawa, an island shadowed by dozens of US bases, there under the pretext of offering protection from China. As Sol descends once again into self-destructive behaviour, Kit finds himself struggling to protect her. Both are discovering that the Ryukyu archipelago harbours many ghosts of its past.
“Children don’t really need it explaining, though, that there’s another world that’s just as real as this one we call reality. I’ve always felt it. It’s just that it can’t be pinned down to any point on our spectrums of time or space. An in-between place.”
The author captures evocatively the hallucinatory nature of existence when in a strange place and under the influence of narcotics. She introduces many elements of local folklore alongside the impact of fear – real and from dreams. Kit may be more stable than Sol in his chosen behaviour but they both carry the scars of their shared history.
The intensity of the tale ratchets up when Sol and Kit are separated. The islands are hit by a typhoon and then an earthquake. Rumours of where her father could be lead Sol on an ever more risky trajectory. Kit must decide if the cost of trying to rescue her yet again is worth paying.
Welby’s writing style is original and uncompromising – as she proved in her debut, Mother of Darkness. Dreamtime is a step up but not away from this ability to conjure empathy for those whose behaviour is rebarbative. The sense of place – and how out of place incomers can be with their self-entitled behaviour – adds strength to a captivating tale tinged with regret. Man’s destructive behaviour continues despite the clear warnings of where it will lead. This is a disturbing journey exploring many varieties of abuse – of people and place – and the ripples triggered.
A story laced with shadows and beauty that reminds the reader how much we look away when to see becomes challenging. An arresting window into a future that is worryingly believable.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.