By Julie Bertagna
Young Picador, 9.99
IMAGINE the world's waters have risen, the population has taken to living in slum-like boat cities and humanity is in crisis. If such is the scenario a century from now, what word would have insinuated itself into the English language to describe a foolish person? Julie Bertagna has the perfect answer. In the follow-up to Exodus, her award-winning teenage escape fantasy, the Glasgow novelist coins the word "dubya" for just that purpose.
It's the kind of word you would shout at a boy in the neighbouring shack when he's woken you up by knocking over a bucketful of precious eels and sent them slithering back into the sea.
Where the term came from will have faded from memory in this loveless world of pirates, sea-police and scavenging urchins. But if ever there had been a man known as Dubya, you'd imagine him to have been that foolish kind of early 21st-century leader who denied the evidence of rising temperatures, melting ice caps and ferocious storms.
In the bleak, hand-to-mouth water world described in Zenith, such wilful denial is more than foolish, it's a gross obscenity. "It's as if the world is a wrecked ship and all that is left is the flotsam of the past," she writes, pointing a warning finger at our profligate era as she describes a population that dresses in plastic bags and makes treasure from rusting car parts.
ALTHOUGH IT IS aimed at teenagers, Zenith isn't one of those green-thinking books that shoves the problems created by the older generation onto the shoulders of young readers. For several decades the environment has been the one political subject deemed suitable for children, which has had the odd effect of passing on the blame to the people least responsible. I still remember a sanctimonious song we were made to sing at primary school as long ago as 1974 which itemised various kinds of litter. Even at the time, I knew it wasn't me and my classmates dumping the "iron bedsteads" and "dirty old rags" on the streets - it was the grown-ups.
Likewise, today's teenagers are as likely to be victims of global warming as causes of it and it's unproductive to weigh them down with the alarming statistics of environmental doom if it only makes them feel powerless. Zenith is unromantic in its portrayal of a warmed-up world and certain about laying the blame at our feet, but in telling a messianic tale of survival and rebirth, Bertagna sows a seed of hope for the future. Teenagers - and, frankly, adults - will be gripped by the horrors of her story, but they won't despair.
Taking place where 2002's Exodus left off, Zenith throws us headfirst into a harsh seascape where "Salters" chase looters over the bridges and barges of the floating "Gypsea" city of Pomperoy, where feral children fight over their salvaged flotsam and where a 15-year-old girl uses her old-world "cyberwizz" to explore the internet-like corridors of the "weave".
That girl is Mara who, in Exodus, led an evacuation of her hilltop village before the rising waters could wash it away. She discovered the city of New Mungo, a self- contained bubble raised high above the land once known as Glasgow. While its citizens lived an untroubled existence in the sky, the Treenesters in the shadowy netherworld below and the refugees in the boat camp beyond the exclusion wall were suffering poverty, sickness and starvation.
Outraged by the injustice of it all, Mara infiltrated the New World, hooked up with a young man called Fox and brought the city to a halt. Leaving Fox behind to pursue his revolutionary agenda, she loaded up a ship with sundry slaves, Treenesters, urchins and refugees and set sail for Greenland.
It's at this point we catch up with her in Zenith. Scarcely has she had time to celebrate their liberation than she's staring down mutinies, fretting about lost lives and wondering if there's any merit in her theory that Greenland will have bobbed up like a cork after the melting of the ice. There is little to relieve the desperation of this epic voyage, but so vivid is Bertagna's writing, so urgent her narrative, that it is constantly compelling.
Her writing has grown in poetic ambition and, like the quotations from Edwin Morgan and Friedrich Nietzsche, does not rein itself in to suit the target market. Occasionally the colourful vocabulary is a distraction, but for the most part, it is fresh and vigorous. Thematically, Bertagna is just as ambitious, touching on death, survival, sexual rivalry, guilt, responsibility, faith and pregnancy.
With allusions to the French Revolution and America's Founding Fathers, Bertagna elevates the novel to something more than a post-apocalyptic high-seas adventure. As Fox stays behind wondering "what would revolution really mean?", Mara begins a journey to a brave new world in which there is a chance of putting the excesses of the past behind her. Charting a course somewhere between Noah's Ark and Lord Of The Flies, the author maps out the possibility of hope.
There are two frustrations about the novel. One is the lack of development in Fox's story; the other - and this is a back-handed compliment - is the "watch this space" ending, which leaves you desperately hanging on for the next instalment. Exodus and Zenith are like two chapters in some magnificent epic, dealing boldly and inspiringly with the human characteristics that have set the planet on its catastrophic course. Let's hope Bertagna produces volume three before it's too late.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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