Venetia Welby’s futuristic second novel, Dreamtime, has an altogether different atmosphere and resonance to her first, Mother of Darkness, set in London’s Soho. Both novels, however, feature central characters in crisis seeking to put themselves back together one way or another as they struggle with their instincts and the conscious/unconscious part of their personality. Both are super-charged and simmering narratives with a twist, which suck you right in. Dreamtime is an unusual novel that lingers in the mind.
The Law of contagion
“Nature is not dead but livid. Here she is thriving: alive with seething, uncontrollable rage. A devouring Mother Earth despairing of her children, washing them away with floods and burning them with electricity from the sky. And here are her minions, her monsters of the sea [. . .] A sea full of krakens.”
It’s 2035 and planet earth has been ravaged by climate change; the oceans are toxic; society is in meltdown and global air travel is on the cusp of being banned forever. VR is a version of the news used to manipulate people and keep them under control, aided by Virrea devices like smartphones. The Orwellian powers-that-be create the delusion of happiness so that people misperceive reality, thereby disguising the unpalatable toxic truth – easily done since happiness is a subjective emotional state differing from one person to the next, and our behaviour is invariably motivated by impulses beyond conscious awareness.
Sol is fresh out of rehab in Arizona, and is obsessed with finding her unknown father – a US marine stationed in Japan. She teams up with her erstwhile childhood companion, Kit, working at a diner in Tucson. He is as mesmerized and enraptured by her “pixie wildness” as he was the day they first met as children living in a commune dominated by an abusive cult leader, Phoenix.
The father she’s set out to find on the other side of the world soon sets her on a course far more complex and dangerous than anticipated. From LA to Tokyo . . . Kagoshima . . . Okinawa . . . Cat Island and ever onwards . . . Sol and Kit go on a wild ride which has a frightening, ethereal beauty to it. Hunter, a marine “built like a tank”, joins them in their quest, much to Kit’s irritation. The narrative is punctuated by italicised flashbacks to the American Occupation of Japan in 1945-52.
The World’s policeman
“He does not understand why they hear nothing of the suffering of Okinawa back home. It’s trapped in a time warp, the Second World War still alive. He cannot imagine surviving day by day in caves, hiding from the enemy. Perhaps he would have been stationed here if he’d walked the military road. Perhaps he would have been in Camp Foster or Schwab or Futenma airbase, and he’d never have met the civilians, heard the other side of the story. He would have eaten pizza and taco rice, hung out with others like himself in the American areas where he felt at home.”
An incident in a bar when three young women question Sol, Kit and Hunter illustrates how the presence of US forces in Japan is a contentious issue. An enraged veiled reference to the 1995 Okinawa rape incident is made. “It’s always an American! There’s a new thing every week: an accident, a robbery, a rape – a murder.”
When Sol and Kit are separated, she continues her search with Hunter who morphs from being a protector to a seducer-rapist seeking to dominate and posses Sol. A typhoon strikes so they stay marooned in a hotel, attended to by a gracious humanoid robot, and lulled into a trance by sex, pills and sleep. Each island they visit is disease-ridden and overrun by monstrous creatures, or otherworldly ghosts. Sol discovers that her father is a legendary figure: why he is so, is a mystery to be solved.
“There is a perverse sense of freedom in submission to fate”
Venetia Welby’s arresting blend of chaos, love, mystery, myths and the supernatural, animals both real and shapeshifting, and the consequences of abuse in the private and public spheres, illustrate how human relationships are complicated and tricky. The world conjured by Welby is weird and elusive, as is the relationship of humans with Nature. Her beautifully stylized writing has a lyrical strange quality to it. The future is envisioned as being one of increased disempowerment.
The dystopian, apocalyptic universe of Dreamtime feels creepily alive, giving urgency to the sense of being trapped and confused. Reading this novel as we emerge from the Covid pandemic, and despair at a crisis of leadership worldwide, with those in power not being up to the job of discharging their responsibilities either to the benefit of those they lead, or to the benefit of planet Earth, makes it all the more unsettling.
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