E. J. Swift, The Coral Bones, Unsung Stories, 2022.
In this scifi novel, three strands mingle to tell the story of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, in the past, in the present, and in the future.
Hana is a marine biologist. One day, as she's on a dive to witness the fast decaying coral, she finds a dead man drifting on a raft. On his body, someone painted a message warning about the death of the reef.
Judith escapes the proper society of Victorian Sidney to board her father's boat. Its mission is to map the Queensland coast. Judith has the prejudices of a white young woman of her time, but she's also driven to become a scientist, as much as a woman can in her time.
Telma's world is living through the consequences of the climate crisis. Most animal species are gone, the temperatures have gone up, and storms threaten. One day, someone tells her of a sighting: a leafy seadragon, believed extinct.
The three strands are united through the Great Barrier Reef itself: its beauty, its discovery, and its death as we relentlessly kill it by not changing our ways. There are also other links, in particular how these three women, all scientists, leave a specific trace in the world and how driven they are. They're all fleeing something, someone, and in the course of the novel, they'll have to face it.
My favourite character among them was Telma, from the future. Her despair and bleak acceptance at what they're left with for a planet, but also her reasons to hide from her family, moved me. She felt as the embodiment of the consequences of the climate crisis.
I particularly appreciated that Swift isn't trying for a "Don't worry, it'll be alright" that we seem to see too often recently in clifi these days. Swift paints the current reality of the Great Barrier Reef and its inevitable outcome. As we see it through the eyes of her characters, it's difficult not to finally understand what losing it will mean. The Coral Bones is a powerful hommage to a dying marvel of our world.
So, yes, it's bleak but I live in an area of the world that stands on the frontline of the climate crisis, and I would have hurled the book across the room if it had presented a magical solution or some ridiculous pseudo-science to "give hope".
Instead, we encounter three women who are resilient and who try to fight fate even though compromises are necessary and mistakes unavoidable. Something I find infinitely more realistic and believable.
The three strands reflect in the prose the particular personality and time of each character. Although the pacing isn't the quickest, the novel includes some really tense moments, in particular in Telma's timeline. I regret though that the mystery in Hana's timeline was sidelined after offering such a strong opening and it left me feeling a bit cheated.
Don't read The Coral Bones if you want a Disney take on the climate crisis, but go for it if you want the awe of the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef and the rage and sadness that we're all killing it.
Disclaimer: a free copy was received but with no obligation attached to review it.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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