The island has its own tune, which I sometimes hear at the end of winter when I haven't seen a person in months. It is mute to me this year. (p.61)
Kitty Hawke is the sole remaining inhabitant of Wolfe Island. Others have fled as the waters rise, swallowing homes, wharves, livelihoods. Kitty's house is on the highest ground where she overlooks her cherished island as if she was its queen. However, she is under no illusion of sovereignty; she has no power to save her disappearing homeland.
Wolfe Island is Lucy Treloar's second novel. She writes the deteriorating "Wolfe", as Kitty often refers to it, with an atmosphere that is palpable; the fog of an early morning can almost be seen emanating from the book's pages. A former habitat for sea life, Wolfe is near barren, and fishermen have long ago given up on a declining yield. Houses are on their knees in water, abandoned mid-life; books are stacked on tables, fireplaces laid but unlit.
Kitty walks the remaining streets and trails with her wolfdog, Girl, scavenging for objects to use in her 'makings'. She finds solace in the waterways, marshes, trees, and surviving birdlife. The place is mapped into Kitty's being: in her oneness with Wolfe, she is never truly alone. Also keeping her company are the Watermen, statues Kitty has created from bones and other repurposed materials. These foreboding artworks act as guardians of the island: "Sculptures and makings of all kinds have their own life, even if they don't breathe," Kitty writes.
Kitty's solitude comes to an abrupt end with the approach of a boat carrying four young fugitives, her granddaughter amongst them. Their arrival, and the secrets they bring with them, changes everything. With water licking her doorstep and the new occupants garnering unwanted attention, Kitty must decide what is most important to her: the protection of those she loves or life on her beloved Wolfe.
There is a tension within Kitty that makes her an arresting and unforgettable protagonist. With a tough exterior and an abrasive manner, Kitty leaves a wake of hurt behind her, having separated from her family - who live on "the main" - for the sake of returning to Wolfe. Through the writings in her notebook, which she says "holds my worries at bay even if I'm writing about those very worries," she shares her regrets and desires, revealing parts of herself her loved ones rarely see. Isolated both physically and emotionally, she has struggled to bridge the gap in her estranged relationships. But the past encroaches, as the water does; there's no escaping either for Kitty.
Qualities of loyalty, tenderness and fierceness are highly prized in a collapsing world, and Kitty's wolfdog, Girl, embodies each of them. Through relationships with dogs and people, Treloar explores the hazy line between human and animal, examining how quick we are to rely on animal instincts when lives are at stake. In doing so, she paints a vision for the guarded, hackles-raised human interaction of a dystopian near-future, or more scarily, of the present.
The story is sprawling, taking surprising and sometimes confusing blockbuster-style turns. There are pervasive but unclear threats, and the novel becomes peppered with brutal confrontation.
These conflicts are so numerous that they lose some of their power, but this may be the point; Kitty is worn down and numbed by her own violence, by the need to choose the lesser evil in her quest to defend and survive.
If the plot stretches thin in places, the world of the novel - Kitty's world - remains immersive and addictive. She is under the skin well and truly; her imperfections are forgiven, and in the same way, the novel's are forgiven, too.
This is a story of families rupturing and new types of families forming, sutured with trust and cunning. It is about the damage done by humanity's attempted dominion over the environment.
Most strikingly, Wolfe Island is an account of abandonment and loss, of discovery amidst ruin, of building art and lives from brokenness.
This is a story of families rupturing and new types of families forming, sutured with trust and cunning.
Treloar has created a captivating, haunting novel. Houses cling to the edges of Wolfe Island, and this story holds fast to the mind, rippling, reverberating beyond the book's end.
- Kathryn Hind is a Canberra writer. Her recent novel Hitch was the winner of the Penguin Literary Prize.