Throughout the process of reading Kaisa Saarinen’s debut novel, I was continually stuck with the sense that despite how invested I was in this story, I hadn’t completely understood what she was doing with the narrative. In retrospect, I think that this is because Weather Underwater is a book that very deliberately divides itself between two parallel storylines, both of which seem to function in fundamentally different ways.
In one respect, Weather Underwater is a very subtle character-focused narrative detailing the gradual reunion of two formerly close friends, both of whom have endured drastically different lives that are nevertheless still linked by a common experience in their pasts. In another respect, however, Weather Underwater is a novel examining the link between fascism and violence, and seems to depict how the acts of cruelty that accompany fascist movements are paradoxically both separate from and integral to the bigotry with which these movements are paired. It’s only in the novel’s ending that Saarinen reconciles both of these stories, with the book merging its two halves in a conclusion that is itself so abrupt and tragic that it seems to redefine the nature of everything that has come before.
Set in a near-future version of London where rising global sea levels have triggered an international refugee crisis, Weather Underwater opens in the months following the emergence of an authoritarian anti-immigration movement calling itself the Ebbtide Party. Having coopted environmentalist rhetoric surrounding conservation of the Earth’s natural resources, Ebbtide’s leaders seek to transform the United Kingdom into a totalitarian ethnocracy, and toward this aim have begun implementing a racist policy wherein access to food and water is heavily regulated via a digitally stored scan of each individual citizen’s genetic code. Under Ebbtide’s laws, those deemed by this system to be insufficiently white are routinely denied access to anything considered part of the country’s natural resources, with everything from buying food and water to boarding public transit now facilitated via a system of microchip implants that scan the user’s DNA.
It’s in this context that Weather Underwater’s two protagonists are introduced, albeit in fundamentally different scenarios. Mia is the orphaned daughter of climate refugees who died more than two decades earlier while attempting to immigrate to Britain. Having been raised in foster care for years, Mia is now working in a criminally understaffed electrical substation as an environmental engineer. Forced to contend regularly with the patronizing sympathy of Rhys (the blandly offensive white co-worker with whom she shares the space), the novel opens as Mia contemplates a catastrophic power outage brought about by Ebbtide’s intentional mismanagement of London’s electrical infrastructure—a mismanagement that Ebbtide’s leaders have already falsely attributed to climate refugees like herself.
This same power outage is also used to introduce Lily, a former romantic partner of Mia’s who was raised in the same orphanage, but who, unlike Mia, was placed in state custody by a mother who feared the sadistic ease with which her daughter would casually enact harm on others. Having initially grown close to Mia due to their shared experiences of alienation, in the novel’s present neither Lily nor Mia have spoken to each other in years, with Lily herself currently living in an unhappy romantic relationship with Joel—an official within Ebbtide itself who has used his connections in the party to secure her a job. Unaware that she and Mia currently live in the same city, Lily now spends her days working in Ebbtide’s official headquarters, routinely denying domestic travel applications based solely on the applicant’s race.
It’s through both of these characters that Saarinen proceeds to tell two parallel but also inverted stories. Stumbling across a group of volunteers who are deliberately violating Ebbtide’s laws against distributing food and water to anyone in need, Mia is soon recruited into the titular Weather Underwater—a loosely defined antifascist organization seeking to create communal support networks all across London. Whereas the Ebbtide Party has built its authority atop the restriction of essential resources, Weather Underwater is, by contrast, an activist organization whose members pool their collective knowledge so as to better support one another. When Mia is ordered by Ebbtide officials to disconnect houses suspected of harboring non-white residents from the electrical grid, she resigns from her job in protest and flees to a Weather Underwater safe house, where she uses her own expertise as an engineer to help others better endure Ebbtide’s artificial resource scarcity.
Meanwhile, Lily faces a far more disturbing manifestation of the violence of Ebbtide’s policies when her manager, Malcolm, demands that she and Joel accompany him to the household of a former political opponent. There, in what is by far the novel’s most disturbing and graphic sequence, Lily actively participates in the murder of this woman’s infant daughter, beating the girl’s head against a table at Joel’s urging while the child’s mother watches in horror. Having impressed Malcolm with the ease with which she is willing to commit senseless acts of violence in Ebbtide’s name, Lily is immediately selected for training in undercover missions on Ebbtide’s behalf.
These two stories are then interspersed with flashbacks to Mia and Lily’s shared pasts—scenes that explore the nature of the emotionally detached violence in which Lily regularly engages. First meeting at the orphanage where Mia was sent after her parents’ deaths, and where Lily was sent after being abandoned by her mother, the two form an unlikely bond rooted in part in the fierce sense of protection that Lily comes to feel towards Mia. While Mia is continually tormented by the other children at the orphanage, Lily soon appoints herself as her guardian. She routinely fends off Mia’s attackers in acts of aggression that, despite Lily’s altruistic motives, also foreshadow the violence she will commit years later in Ebbtide’s name. In one flashback, Lily openly threatens to kill a young boy who had previously joined a group of his peers in taunting Mia, only to grow genuinely confused when Mia herself pleads for her to stop. As Lily holds this boy pinned against a wall, the exchange between all three characters reads:
“I’m sorry,” the boy whispers.
“Sure you are,” Lily says, holding the knife very close to his throat. His head barely reaches Lily’s shoulders. The sight makes Mia’s heart sink from her own throat to the pit of her stomach.
“Please don’t do it,” she pleads, squeezing her eyes shut.
“Would you like to do it, then?” Lily asks, taking a step towards Mia and dangling the boy in front of her like a pallid rag doll. “I think it’d be good for you. You need to learn to defend yourself.”
The boy stares at Mia, and the sight of his huge, fear-glazed eyes makes a shameful surge of pleasure go up her spine. She looks away and tries to force it down immediately. Lily is always picking games Mia cannot play, fights she simply cannot fight, all the while thinking she’s doing her a favor.
This dichotomy between Lily and Mia—established first in the flashbacks illuminating their shared pasts, and then later in the present day scenario in which each character ends up on opposite sides of a resistance against Ebbtide—is the primary lens through which Weather Underwater examines the link between fascism and violence. Despite killing in Ebbtide’s name, Lily herself never seems fully to align herself with Ebbtide’s racist propaganda, and if anything occasionally criticizes the rhetoric with which this group justifies its rule. Over time, Saarinen uses this ambiguous quality in Lily to illuminate how the acts of violence in which she regularly engages are paradoxically both distinct from and integral to the fascist ideology underlying Ebbtide. Saarinen’s point is not to offer a sympathetic portrayal of a character who is working for a fascist government, but instead to highlight how Lily’s own propensity toward violence is something Ebbtide takes advantage of because it reaffirms their authority.
While in one respect Ebbtide is actively seeking to create a society wherein citizens are denied access to food and water based on their race, Ebbtide is also slowly revealed to be a totalitarian police state seeking to create a society wherein all citizens may be denied access to food and water for any reason whatsoever, with its authoritarian rule being conceptualized as an end in and of itself. Even Ebbtide’s system of DNA-scanning microchips is soon revealed to be so critically flawed a concept that it routinely bars even so-called “pure citizens” from accessing essential resources. Meanwhile, Ebbtide’s own supporters find that the party’s assurances that they themselves will not be harmed by their government’s water rations were hollow. The racialized violence Ebbtide wields—a violence that is embodied within Lily herself—is something that exists for its own sake, a show of force intended to reaffirm Ebbtide’s authority via the implicit threat that this violence can be aimed at anyone.
Throughout all of this, as a person who has spent her life alienated by her own innate tendency toward violence, Lily finds within Ebbtide a community of sorts, albeit one which she herself knows to be intensely dangerous. In one scene, after being extensively interviewed about her past in preparation for an undercover mission, Lily considers the conflicted sense of security she derives from her role within Ebbtide:
Being seen as a list of attributes is a way of being invisible, holding the core parts of you deep within—because there are no words for them or because they are constantly changing, never fixed in a dictionary form, Lily does not know. There is comfort in that, paralleled by the dread of being seen wrong. She knows she is rotten, in certain moments has even come to embrace the idea, but not in the way the people in front of her think. They insist on drawing fault lines where none exist; the questions they ask are proof of that, poking at her bad-tempered father and overwhelmed mother, the boy she stabbed that got her sent to the orphanage, and the one she stabbed for Mia. But she answers their questions, she sees the agents nodding, like she has passed some test, arranging her past into a dazzling constellation of events and assigning a correct emotional weight to each of them. She realizes that, though she has never tried acting, if it simply means giving the audience what they want to hear it might not be that difficult.
This exploration of Lily’s reasons for aligning herself with Ebbtide is furthered as the story progresses—and she comes to infiltrate Weather Underwater itself. Ultimately reunited with Mia in a context that makes any true understanding between these characters impossible, Lily soon finds herself struggling with a need to maintain her own cover, and a rival desire to warn Mia of the danger she knows is coming when Ebbtide inevitably arrests all of Weather Underwater's members.
Lily’s dilemma here is then paralleled with a rival dilemma that Mia herself endures—one that slowly begins to invert the ethical dichotomy between the novel’s two protagonists. When the other members of the Weather Underwater group begin devising a plot to detonate a bomb in Ebbtide’s headquarters (abandoning their humanitarian ideology when one member of their group is killed), Mia finds herself torn between her dedication to Weather Underwater’s mission of feeding and housing people and the rising commitment of the other members of this group to engage in an act of violence that, while perhaps justified, is still little more than a show of force—one that likewise exists primarily for its own sake.
As Lily’s and Mia’s stories come to twist tightly around each other, Saarinen steers the novel toward a conclusion that ultimately proves so tragic that it redefines the nature of the story that has preceded it, and that leaves the reader struggling to interpret a series of events that perhaps defy interpretation. I hesitate to discuss the details of this ending here, simply because I think that doing so might do a disservice to the effect that the entire novel produces. However, I will say that as a story exploring the senseless nature of the violence of fascism, Weather Underwater concludes with both its protagonists committing acts of violence that not only prove senseless, but that then force each character to confront the devastating consequences of their own actions when it’s too late for those actions to be rectified.