Thursday, May 13, 2021

THE IMPOSSIBLE RESURRECTION OF GRIEF, Dr. Cade's dystopian vision expanded without expounding

Read Arley Sorg's interview with her here!
SPECIAL SALE AT: Stelliform Press
$14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five



With the collapse of ecosystems and the extinction of species comes the Grief: an unstoppable melancholia that ends in suicide. When Ruby’s friend, mourning the loss of the Great Barrier Reef, succumbs to the Grief, the letters she leaves behind reveal the hidden world of the resurrected dead. The Tasmanian tiger, brought back from extinction in an isolated facility, is only the first... but rebirth is not always biological, and it comes with a price.

As a scientist, Ruby resists the Grief by focusing her research on resilient jellyfish, but she can’t avoid choosing which side she’s on. How can she fight against the dead and the forces behind them when doing so risks her home, her life, and the entire biosphere?


My Review
: Here's how we start this tale:
The Sea Witch lived in an abandoned salt water pool. I knew her when she was called Marjorie and had the office next to mine at the University, but when the Grief came on her she stopped coming into work and set herself up at the derelict public pool with a stack of useless journal articles and a lifetime supply of plastic.

That's a high-octane start to what turns into a careening rush between ugly and awful, ending its trip at unthinkable.

And you will not be blamed for wondering why I now say: Get this book right now. Sit down, open it, and then let Author Cade do her wicked, caustic thing for/to you.

The jellyfish migrated through the lake during the day, and snorkelers could swim with them, with thousands of jellies, with millions of them, and see in their lovely, delicate forms the histories of another life. They pulsed around me like little golden hearts, shimmering in the surface layer of waters, and it was as close as I've ever come to religious communion.

There is a Jellyfish Lake in Palau, first crossing my own personal radar in 1982, where there is an immense concentration of two sorts of stingless jellies isolated from the ocean for about twelve thousand years and therefore have lost the need for such strong self-defense and hunting measures. The two species are able to coexist, and are so very gorgeous they can stop your heart:

The left are golden jellies, the right has one moon jelly in the middle. These are the creatures that take our narrator's heart from her. She is, from the moment she sees them, in thrall to the living heartbeats that are jellies, in all their many-shaped and -colored and -toxined glory. I can see why they would; in fact, these gorgeous animals are found literally everywhere there is an ocean, are brilliantly adapted to staying alive in every kind or sort of circumstance, and have changed themselves as little as possible over the millennia always just enough to stay in the hunt, just ahead of predators and just behind prey. In Author Cade's world, they are the only ocean creatures thriving as a result.

Also on this Palau dive is a woman, Marjorie, who becomes the narrator's very best friend. Marjorie's obsession is the Great Barrier Reef. The ladies, scientists both, bond over their love of and understanding for the ocean's many and wildly variable ecosystems, all under threat from Anthropogenic Climate Change (maybe you've heard about it?)—but few ecosystems are under greater threat than the Great Barrier Reef. Marjorie succumbs to a new thing, the Grief, a declining mental health state that invariably ends in suicide, that is becoming more and more prevalent among humans who, for idiosyncratic reasons, suddenly can no longer bear to exist in the changing world.

Our narrator, called Ruby as we discover about midway through the story, is apparently immune to the Grief. So is her Māori husband, George...not a scientist, an artist of science subjects, so it's really not science that saves or damns. But Marjorie retreats to behaviors so weird, so utterly foreign to her former self, and yet still sea-themed...she renames herself "the Sea Witch" from "The Little Mermaid" by H.C. Andersen, which is also what she named the expensive boat she bought herself before the Grief and burned to the water-line after it...that it's clear what the decline's end will be while remaining unclear what the hell she's going to do next. The next thing the Sea Witch does...well....

That is a thing of spoilers. The things Marjorie, I mean the Sea Witch, does or causes or abets, are...disturbing. I will leave it to you to read the under-100 page novella, instead of doing what I would love to do and relating the scary, freaky, incredible things that Ruby rips from pillar to post to attempt to make sense of, to attempt to explain to herself (and very possibly the authorities, though which ones and what she could convince them to do in a Grief-stricken world is unclear even to her) what Grief is doing to some apparent survivors.

Why I want you to get this book is really very simple: I need people to talk about it with! There are so many fascinating characters...Tasmanian Granny the Thylacine Jesus for one, addled by Grief but quite the scientist withal, and maybe the Sea Witch's relative...? Ruby goes to visit her at...well, because she gets a Message to, although George her husband isn't keen on it:
"Hurt's easy enough to live with," he said. "If there's an end to it. Break your arm and it hurts, but it heals soon enough and the hurt goes away. Even a small pain, if it never leaves...It wears you down," he said. "In the end it isn't the hurt that gets you, it's the exhaustion."

He's right; physical or psychic, it's the unending aches that cost one the most to survive. As for how that explains the Grief, and those who succumb, we don't know if it's causal or correlative, but Indigenous peoples all over are succumbing to the Grief in greater numbers than the population as a whole. Great grief is always a form of insanity, a melding of psychosis and depression, but Granny is extra no matter what yardstick we're using. The Sea Witch, if she's related, came by it honestly. Gawd...this climate-changed world of Author Cade's is one scary place! Resurrection is never a harbinger of sunshine lollipops and rainbows, anywhere, anytime.
"Some people said...{t}he coming of people like me, and what we'd done to Tasmania, the rest of Australia, and what we'd don in New Zealand...the same devouring, the same indifference to the pre-existence of other life. The same conversation, over and over, with different settings and different subjects." (Ruby speaking)
"I guess we all got better and better at killing. What a shock it must be, to find how efficiency in slaughter always takes the upward trajectory." (George speaking)

At the end of the read, Author Cade delivers a devastating truth to us, one that went straight into my commonplace book. Ruby is having the one conversation she most hoped she wouldn't have to have, and least expected to be remotely possible. In her newly cleared eyesight, she sees this: Self-knowledge was the clearest thing in the world. It was also the unkindest.

Unholy, misbegotten things always survive, don't they? Isn't that Evolution's sick little secret?


  1. All right, Mudge, your enthusiasm is compelling on this one. I ordered this, but Amazon needs a week to get it to me on release. I'll catch up with you to talk about it then. I have had a fascination with grief and its works for decades, Helen MacDonald's "H Is For Hawk," which had an uncanny echo of Joan Didion's "Year of Magical Thinking" to me, to my naive but worthwhile grad student exploration of the Kindertotenlieder of Mahler that tried to interconnect the Rueckert texts, the music, and the classic stages of grief theory.

    The animal capable of perpetrating the current extinction is also the one capable of recognizing it and even mourning it -- but apparently not forestalling it. The existential gobsmack of it. Or the existential quease.

    1. Ha! Yes, both gobsmacking and queasy-making are appropriate responses indeed. I hope you'll like the read as much as I have. Author Cade is a wordsmith with a line directly to my heart.


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