Upon reading Memory of Water, it was obvious why it won the awards it did and is so highly regarded. In a sea of over-the-top YA dystopian novels, this is a quiet, unassuming, and meditative piece devoid of love interests, hyperaction scenes, or crazy maniacal villains. The people are simple; bound by the mundane lives they live in their village and all that entails.
Story: Noria lives in a small town, studying under her tea master father in former Finland (now New Qian). It is a dystopian world; the polar ice caps melted, oil became scarce, and very few uncontaminated water sources survive. Water is rationed by the government (pseudo-Chinese rule) and the villagers survive as best they can. But Noria’s family have guarded a secret underground stream for generations and her decisions about that stream will have serious implications for herself, her family, and her friends. For it is clear the government is starting to close in on her family.
Author Emmi Itäranta wrote this in Finnish and English simultaneously so there are no translation issues. Readers interested in the Finnish aspects will be relieved that they are very intact. Deceptive simplicity, lack of intimacy, brooding narratives, and obsession with water are all present. As such, the book is as devoid of empathy as a Finnish Winter. Those used to American type of hyper-active and uber-emotive dystopian novels may be left scratching their heads by the understated and often emotionless landscape of this novel.
Memory of Water is a meditative piece with a lot of purple prose about conservation (a huge concern in Finland right now) and a person’s place in society when they are ruled by a foreign power (remember, Finland is only 100 years old and has been ruled by Sweden or Russia throughout their history). It is a testament to Finnish ‘sisu’ and the country’s ability to adapt and still survive. But also the terrible pessimism so rampant in the culture. That underlying pessimism is especially poignant at the end of the book, when Noria must face her fate. Finns will understand her actions where others will not.
As well, those who live in or have been to Finland will recognize places such as Kuusamo and Kuolojarvi (which, ironically, translates as death lake and is a graveyard of old discarded technology). As well, names are similar but slightly changed – Noora becomes Noria, Sonja becomes Sanja, Kaito becomes Kaitio, etc. Interspersed are Chinese names: Bolin (a nod to Avatar?), Taro, etc. I found it interesting that there were no Swedish or Russian fore or surnames. I had to wonder if that was a statement that Finland had found and held on to its own identity in the future and no longer borrowed from Sweden or Russia?
Even with my familiarity of Finnish culture, I think I would have still enjoyed Memory of Water as a well written and thoughtful piece. Yes, the environmental messages are heavy and there is no happy ending – the US version would have had a girl and a boy running off to fight with the rebellion against the evil dystopian government. But that very pessimistic world view is also this book’s biggest asset. It is unlike anything I have read before and shows that YA genre books can also be mature and literate.
Reviewed from an ARC.