Watershed by Jane Abbott

‘Whenever we’re faced with something new, we can only measure it by what we already know.’

Imagine.  A world where rising sea levels have sunk low-lying countries.  A world where rain over the remaining land mass is non-existent. Imagine. In the post-apocalyptic world depicted in ‘Watershed’, water is the only currency. The Last Rains fell over land many years ago, and while ships are sent far out to sea to try to reclaim water from the rainfall, people recycle their urine in order to survive.

Imagine.  It’s a world in which most animals have been lost, along with energy generation, and most technology. A desolate landscape burnt to ash.

‘Before the rains stopped, there was the rule of threes: three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food.  When the water disappeared, people learned to extend the second rule, eke out the time, stretching it to four days or more.’

Imagine.  Somewhere in the southern hemisphere, where those who remain, who live in relative safety in the Citadel, are ruled by the Council in the Tower. A shadowy, powerful group controlling food, water, population movement and weapons. Not everyone lives in the Citadel, there are dissidents who try to survive outside, who challenge the regime, its guards and its rule.

Jem is a Watchman:

‘By the time I’d killed a hundred, I was already in my twenty-fourth year.  Or maybe it was my twenty-third or my twenty-fifth.  I don’t know, we never kept track of our ages, just our scores.’

Jem’s job is to kill dissidents, to try to wipe out rebellion.

Forty years earlier, Jem’s mother is born as her family flees the rising seas.  They flee from one danger to another: inland there are roaming vigilantes, a lack of food and water.

Two narratives: the earlier narrative gives a still recognisable past; the present narrative gives us a brutal present.  And the future?  Is there a future?  Can there be?

I picked up this novel and, against the background of Australia’s terrible drought and raging bushfires, was immediately drawn into this horrifying dystopian world.  I finished reading the book on Christmas Day, have been dipping in and out since.  While Jem and some of the other characters held my attention, it was the description of the landscape that has had me rereading.

‘There’s something real spooky about a dead tree … It’s the desolation, the look-what’s-left-of-me condemnation.’

If I’d read this novel when it was first published in 2016, I would have been comfortable seeing it as purely dystopian reading.  Reading it in December 2019, revisiting it in January 2020, it feels all too real.  It’s uncomfortable.

This is Ms Abbott’s debut novel. Imagine.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith