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The Impossible Resurrection of Grief coverTo Octavia Cade, Grief is emphatically the thing without feathers. Also, the thing without fins, without petals, without any of the usual attributes of life. Grief—always capitalized by Cade to distinguish it from the all-too-familiar pain and sorrow at the loss of someone close—is an affliction that assails much of humanity as we kill the living world around us. Part mourning, part guilt, Grief is how people respond to the bleaching of a coral reef, the extinction of another species, the loss of another habitat. And Grief has only one outcome: death, invariably by suicide.

Cade’s short fable centres on Ruby, a rare person who is not prone to Grief at this point—because she is a marine biologist whose focus of study is jellyfish, one of the few marine creatures that is thriving as a result of climate change. But nobody is entirely untouched by the effects of Grief. Ruby’s colleague and friend, Marjorie, who now goes by the name Sea Witch, is at an advanced stage of the madness associated with Grief. Marjorie’s area of study had been the Great Barrier Reef; but the Reef is now bleached and lifeless, which triggers her descent into madness. As Sea Witch becomes increasingly alienated from the human world, she becomes more antagonistic towards Ruby over the latter’s celebration of—and joy in—the profusion of jellyfish in the world’s oceans. Despite Ruby’s continuing support and friendship, Grief takes its inevitable course, leading Sea Witch to a gruesome death that, significantly, involves a pool filled with jellyfish.

It is this death that sets the story in motion. Seemingly from beyond the grave, Sea Witch has engineered a series of encounters for Ruby with what Cade vividly refers to as “mirrors of the dead.” This sequence of three encounters can give the novella a formulaic air: partly because, structurally, they follow much the same pattern yet seem hermetically sealed off from each other, with little overlap between them in terms of either plot or emotion; but mostly because they rise to a point that promises something much greater, more wide-ranging, and yet stop abruptly just before that bigger picture comes into view. In each case we are left wanting more, and I think that Cade knows what that more is, which suggests that this should have been a much longer book.

For instance, this all begins when Ruby, unexpectedly, inherits a collection of letters that Sea Witch had written before her death. These, we are told, are mad; yet, another hand has annotated them to say that Sea Witch was the sanest of all. However, although we are told about the letters, we see nothing of them—not a single sentence is quoted from any of them. Surely we need these letters, if only because their author is the guiding intelligence that shapes all that happens in this novella, and these letters are the only way we might access that mad or sane psychology? Further, the letters might provide the emotional linkage that would make the novella’s various episodes belong to each other. The absence of these letters, then, is the surest sign that The Impossible Resurrection of Grief is far shorter than it should have been.

The unquoted letters lead Ruby to Tasmania, where she meets an old woman who she thinks of as Granny. Only gradually does Granny reveal the madness that is a sign of Grief. But she also reveals that she is a biologist who has, secretly, brought the thylacine back to life. Thylacines were hunted to extinction by humans, and the last example of this marsupial carnivore, also known as the Tasmanian Tiger or Tasmanian Wolf, died in captivity in 1936. Two playful thylacine joeys, or pups, clamber over Ruby and Granny as they talk, but during the night Ruby realises that there are adult thylacine on the property also. In life, thylacine ate small birds and rodents; their relatively weak jaws couldn’t handle much more—so the fact that Ruby perceives these full-grown thylacine as a threat suggests that something more than the straightforward revival of a species is going on here. But we never find out what, because at this moment Ruby’s husband, George, rides up like the seventh cavalry to rescue her.

And at this point, all of our unanswered questions are left dangling in the air, never to be revisited. Are these genuine thylacine? Why make them a more dangerous predator? What would their reintroduction do to an already fragile ecology? And perhaps most pertinently, what effect would the rebirth of a species have upon Grief, which is specifically a reaction to the loss of species? Granny seems to be able both to reintroduce a species and suffer full-blown Grief, an apparent contradiction that I would have thought needed at least to be addressed. Given what comes next, we might draw the conclusion that these are not, in fact, genuine thylacine; but that is never spelled out, and even if it is the case it raises still more questions.

Then there is the problem of George. We are told, right from the start of the novella, that the marriage is in trouble, that they are on the point of divorce. Yet whenever we actually see Ruby and George together, we see two people who are thoughtful about and caring towards each other. The marital problems, whatever form they might take, are always offstage. So much so, indeed, that it can seem as if the collapse of the biosphere is there to act as a metaphor for the failure of the marriage, which is clearly the wrong way round. Although neither Ruby nor George suffers from Grief, the effect of that psychological illness is surely all-encompassing, so it is possible to read the failure of a seemingly well-matched marriage as a knock-on effect of global Grief. But if so, this is never specific enough to truly emerge from the text.

Ruby’s next encounter with those who are seeming to “bargain with the inevitable” (whatever else, Cade is a wonderful phrasemaker) takes her and George to New Zealand, where an artist is introducing into the wild an animatronic version of the rock wren. These small and uninteresting birds were driven to extinction when climate change pushed rats into their territory; the rats ate the birds and the birds had no defence. The robot birds are perfect recreations of the real thing, both in appearance and in behaviour. But when George and Ruby see them in their natural habitat they find a host of dead rats. The birds have been engineered with poison in their beaks, so that they peck the rats to death. Once again we are seeing Grief reimagining nature as something more violent, more dangerous, than it actually was. And again, the inevitable questions about what is real, what this is doing, and what the effect of it all might be, remain unanswered.

There is a final, oddly placid and undramatic encounter: with a hologram recreation of a kettle lake, a glacial remnant, that becomes an almost literal “mirror of the dead.” This leads us back, as the structure of the novella has made inevitable, to Sea Witch. But because we have not read her letters, have not been made privy to the thought processes that led her to set up the encounters for Ruby, the climax ends up feeling a little inconclusive. We know all that has led to this point, but we are not exactly clear on why this point, or what it is meant to achieve. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very good novella—it is wonderfully written and there is a sharp controlling imagination behind it—but it feels like the full picture isn’t here, that we need a much longer work to convey all the complexity that is clearly in Octavia Cade’s mind. I hope that expanded work will, one day, appear.

Paul Kincaid has received the Thomas Clareson Award and has twice won the BSFA Non-Fiction Award, most recently for his book-length study, Iain M. Banks (2017). He is also the author of What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (2008) and Call and Response (2014).
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28 Nov 2022

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