Mum, look! – the last words Matti had said, and Li hadn’t looked. Had Matti been trying to draw her attention to “A flicker of light or shape of a cloud, a wobbly tooth, a new trick, something small with wings. A clue”? Matti and Li had already lost Frank, Matti’s father, and then Li had lost Matti. All three had been together in Nerredin. But they had set out for “the best place we can find” when, after 14 years of drought, the countryside was severe and hot enough to burst into flames, and a flash flood had been so sudden and strong it had washed a child away down a storm drain.
Unsheltered follows Li’s journey to find Matti. The land is dry and harsh, “it’s mostly dust and salt now”, and divided into areas for the sheltered and the unsheltered. There is a hierarchy of transit camps, official and unofficial, where people wait, often endlessly, to get into a sheltered area, either under a quota or by payment. There are No Go areas between the camps and the XB barriers, behind which are the sheltered. But the reader gets snippets that life for the sheltered, although more stable, isn’t great. A soul destroying bureaucracy has built up around managing the unsheltered – refugees from climate disasters, from Sacrifice Zones, from the Wars.
Li keeps hearing rumours about the movements of the group of children that she believes includes Matti, but she is never sure if people are telling the truth – maybe they just want something from her? Eventually tales of “the children walking” become a way for adults to express their culpability for the planet’s disasters. Li is resourceful, good at patching equipment. She can also hunt, and make stills to collect dew. She remembers travelling the country with Val, who showed her how to survive. She had managed for the both of them when Val started drinking again, and was self-sufficient when he died.
As Li continues her quest, she remembers being a far from perfect mother, and she has to remember bad things about Frank to stop herself idolising him. He was the perfect parent, where for her Matti was “this thing she hadn’t decided not to do”. Li’s story is gradually filled in for the reader, exposing the awful choices people are forced to make in times of want. Matti had been traumatised by the lack of permanence of place, of security, and had feared the ‘Takeaway’. For Li there are enough real things to fear in her journey. XB Force who “carried precision rifles and batons, limb restraints and handcuffs”. Groups she would come across at night sitting around a campfire – she would back away before they saw her. Those who would betray her for what little she had, or who would trade aggressively and unfairly for what she needed.
It is an uncomfortably recognisable dystopia: overcrowded refugee camps, struggling NGOs, the vulnerability of women – in an experience of transphobia in one camp, “It had never occurred to [Li] that being a woman was something you might long for.” There are the frequent extreme weather events and the constant background of war, and the ever-widening gap between the safe and the homeless. And there are the mistakes – the sheltered places had been built to keep the unsheltered out, not the Weather. The Wars are an exercise in futility: “All the things they were fighting for were the things they were fighting with”. Li sees jumpers trying unsuccessfully to catch rides under trucks going into sheltered areas, and she wonders what was in the nightmares of those sheltered – was it “People like her?”. She recognises that “They’re afraid if they let us in they’ll become us”.
The plotting of Unsheltered is tense and relentless, with Li always just missing Matti, or losing hope, or getting into a series of dangerous situations. She is burnt, she is injured: “Her body was a catalogue of things wrong: thirst, pain, lack of sleep, hunger.” The descriptions of the landscape are striking: “The dust deadened sound so that people loomed out of it dreamlike. Even engines were muffled, the trucks sounding distant until they were almost on top of her”, and they are beautiful: “Stars so thick they made smoke. Lumps of galaxies like slow burning wood.” When Li finds a map: “Strange to look at this part of the continent with only the old token borderlines, the ones Val said you could cross without even knowing” – so different from the walls and barriers and patrols of ‘now’.
The vast scope of Unsheltered is told through the intimate story of one woman. And despite the calamities, the book is full of human kindness. There is the sharing of heart-breaking stories between the women in Charlie compound, with its forced labour, industrial poisons, sweeping epidemics, and numbers tattooed on wrists. There is Li giving a talk one night on dryland farming in the West – telling the story of small-town life as a gift to her fellow workers. There are the many kindnesses she experiences on the road. And there is Rich, the medic who weaves through her story, and whose skills are a godsend.
Unsheltered has one of the most gripping endings I have ever read. People must make impossible choices when they are powerless and under stress, and everyone is the product of someone else’s choices. At one point in Charlie compound, Li can’t be bullied as she has nothing left, “it didn’t matter to Li because her privacy didn’t matter now, her mind didn’t matter”. But there are the smouldering embers of hope, hope of a future, of finding Matti, of there being safety in the Deep Islands, or even in the Sacrifice Zone in the North. I was desperate for things to work out well for Li, as her story is such a convincing read. And it is all the more powerful for the reader recognising that today in many places, for many women displaced by weather, war, or poverty, Li’s story is their reality. “This, in here, this wasn’t life, it was something else, something that couldn’t be added up.” An exceptional book.