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Languages of Water cover

Languages of Water edited by Eugen Bacon

(MyMedia, 2023)

Reviewed by Harry Slater

I’m writing this review in a small, converted barn, staring idly out of single-glazed windows at a deluge of mid-October, English rain. My feet are cold. A handful of days ago it was muggy, close, the back-dampening humidity of the bayou, the kind of weather where shadows are the best company. There are blossoms as well as soggy fruit on some of the apple trees. This past month, everything has felt wrong. It seems a fitting setting to be discussing Languages of Water, a book which confronts the wrongness of climate change not just head-on, but from a range of different and intriguing directions. The book has at its core a short story by its editor, Eugen Bacon. It’s called ‘When the Water Stops’ and it runs to only six pages. In it, a small community in a never-specified African country runs out of water and turns to the only other readily available liquid to sustain themselves—blood. Specifically, human blood. This is a tale of utterly believable vampirism, one so close to us in time that only a week may have elapsed between now and then. ‘When the Water Stops’ is told from several different perspectives, from omniscient narrator to a woman in a vat who is being boiled down; from a dictator on the steps of a church, to a small, almost language-less child, one of fourteen, who does not realise the terrible choices their father is making. It is not a horror story, except that it is. But the horror is all too prescient, all too proximal, deftly swaying from sacrifice to slaughter to entitlement in the space of a few paragraphs. It is the sort of story that opens up questions like wounds and dares you to turn away from the answers it ekes out of your brain. ‘When the Water Stops’ acts as a homing story for the rest of the collection. It’s a jumping off point, an inspiration, for everything else in the book. Languages of Water is an intriguing artefact in and of itself, a philosophical exploration of art and story-telling that crosses cultures, genres and media. It refuses the idea of a single ur-interpretation of a story, with each creator posing a revision, a re-telling, a re-imagining of Bacon’s original. Some of these take the form of actual translations—it is presented in French, Malay (with illustrations), Swahili, Cantonese and Bengali. There are poems that spring out of Bacon’s work as well, dripping, riddling things that explore the sense of water, of thirst, of desperation, of collapse. ‘New Winds’ by Quyên Nguyễn-Hoàng takes the story’s staccato shape and leads it in a slightly different direction, in both English and Vietnamese. In Erin Latimer’s ‘Deeper Still’, a mother and her son traipse across a desert in search of water and share a strange moment of heartbreaking magic. It’s at once a meditation on death and a cowed celebration of life, rendered in expressive prose that captures the strange, sad desperation of the end of the world. In ‘So Close to Home’, Andrew Hook explores the believable endgame of water rationing. It’s a story layered with class and colonialism, with rebellion and deep ideas about the balance of survival and power in a world falling apart. Clara Chow’s story ‘NEW(er) Water’ sees water, and life itself, becoming the commodities of a very-late-capitalist economy. Like all the other stories here, there’s a deep believability to the tale, a crushing realisation of plausible futures that we’re all inching towards. Even in its slightly hopeful denouement, there lies a nihilistic apathy, a “whatever” that resonates long after the page is turned. ‘Old Water’, by Tamantha Smith, adds a kind of magical realist flair to proceedings. The fountain of youth has run dry, and a woman carries with her the last drop of it. Through her wanderings she’s created countless zombies, people who cannot die, but who stumble through a desiccated world, wasting away. It is a bleak and hopeless story, the idea of forever painted as a curse in times of ruin. The story that departs the most from ‘When the Water Stops’ is Clare Rhoden’s ‘Handsome Fox Thirsts for More’. It’s a strangely playful fable about a world in which animals have become the dominant species, but one littered with horrific images of collapse and degradation. The titular fox is a spy, travelling through the distant borderlands of an unseen queen’s empire. Thirst and blood play their part, and the shift into a more wildly speculative domain makes for an intriguing change of pace. ‘Taking Turns’ by Stephen Embleton is an almost literal slice-of-life drama, soaked in the themes of the book. Questions about the acceptability of horrendous things in horrendous times resonate through each word, refusing the reader any simple answers. ‘Downpour’ by E. Don Harpe and ‘Bodysurfing’ by Dominique Hecq are short stories that capture the humanity and panic of a water crisis in unique ways, at turns both humorous and macabre. ‘Black Queen’ by Nuzo Onoh is the most on-the-nose story in the book, a tale of developers and deforestation angering a goddess who is also a river. It’s about responsibility and tradition, modernisation and its costs, and the dreadful scope of loss that awaits us all. The book rounds off with a series of essays by some of the authors, discussing their work and their experience of contributing. Languages of Water is timely and brutal, a book that demands multiple readings, never holding your hand as it parades a series of all-too-plausible futures in front of you. It’s smart, often difficult to read, and at its core beats an artistic and philosophical honesty that commands your attention.

Review from BSFA Review 23 - Download your copy here.


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