Slowly sinking in a rising ocean, (a fictional) Wolfe Island has long been abandoned as a habitable place. Except, that is, by artist Kitty Hawke and her wolfdog companion, Girl. It’s a desolate place, but she is content in her isolation away from the politics of the mainland and its increasing lawlessness and surveillance. With more than a nod towards Gilaed and The Handmaid’s Tale, refugees are being imprisoned or making a run for the border to the north with the very real threat of being shot by authorities or vigilantes.
Kitty is only too aware that time is not on her side. What was once a bustling little community of permanent residents and tourists is now a place being eaten by the sea as rising salt, violent storms and water levels eat away at the island. As she picks her way across the increasingly sodden land and its memories, making sculptures from the flotsam and jetsam that have made a name for her on the mainland, so Kitty maintains, as best she can, the island that she cannot abandon. The pull of the island has already proven to be too strong, breaking up her family with husband Hart and daughter Claudie unable to continue living in so remote a place. Only son Tobe understood the pull, but he too eventually left, only to be killed in an accident.
But Wolfe Island is not ‘simply’ an environmental polemic. There’s so much more to Australian author Lucy Treloar’s wholly engrossing second novel, set in a factionalised Chesapeake Bay on the American east coast and a place of hundreds of small islands. Many have been submerged by the rising tides as Treloar speaks of climate change. But the narrative is much broader. One dark and stormy night, approximately one third into the book, her estranged granddaugher Cat and friends are blown ashore, fearful for their lives and obviously in need of hiding. Kitty’s life of isolation will forever change.
Cat and Theo are activists but Luis and his younger sister Alejandra are refugees, in need of refuge.
From protecting the four on Wolfe Island to eventually travelling north and the safe haven hopefully offered, Kitty and her band of misfits pull together (or not) as they navigate a hostile environment, natural and manmade, in order to find some semblance of order, safety and security. Once they have left the island, every interaction with a stranger is fraught with suspicion, questions hovering, left unasked.
It is Kitty who is, years after the events, our narrator. Time and distance has allowed a level of normalcy to return to her everyday, even though Wolfe Island itself has all but disappeared. It’s that distance that’s allowed the shock of its unravelling be put into perspective and the frontier mentality they faced in their desperate bid in this no-so-distant future dystopia. It’s a powerful thrill of a narrative.