The Glad Shout. By Alice Robinson. Affirm Press, 2019. Pp. 320. A$32.99.
Speculative, dystopian novels and films are typically male-centric. A woman may form part of the gang of survivors, but she’ll be there in relation to the male hero and his romantic lead needs. Alternatively, she might die tragically early on to fast-track the hero’s emotional journey. In other instances, the main female character will be a small child, preferably reminiscent of Dakota Fanning circa 2005, who screams a great deal and repeatedly needs to be rescued to show how macho and valiant her father is under trying circumstances. More often than not though, women are absent altogether, enabling a post-apocalyptic father-son road trip to unfold unfettered.
Happily for the trope-averse, Alice Robinson’s speculative work The Glad Shout(Affirm Press, 2019) avoids these clichés and cuts a different path.
The novel is set in Melbourne in a disquietingly plausible, not-so-distant future. Storms and floods have destroyed the city, and its inhabitants – now climate refugees – struggle to survive. The protagonist, Isobel, has escaped from her flooded house along with her husband Shaun and daughter Matilda, and the book opens with the family arriving at a sports stadium now serving as an emergency relief centre. As the story unfolds, we see exactly how far the systems and institutions binding the nation have fallen apart and just how dire Isobel’s mission is to keep her family alive.
The Glad Shoutis gripping. Although the pace is tempered, with Robinson alternating chapter-by-chapter between Isobel’s present situation and her life pre-disaster, the sense of fear and increasing peril throughout makes the novel difficult to put down. Indeed, it is a claustrophobic slow-burn of a book: the present-day chapters maintain tension through characters’ growing anxiety as they realise help may never come, and the chapters based in the past help set the book’s ominous tone.
A recurrent theme is the idea that Australians should have been less surprised when climate-based disaster began unfolding at home. As Isobel reflects, “when disaster came here, when it happened on the tree-lined streets of their own city in her lifetime, somehow no one was ready” (200). It is a sinister warning: the notion that although we may feel “inoculated against it by virtue of […] luck” (161), there is no logical reason for us to perceive widescale war and famine as intrinsically foreign conditions.
Moreover, in what constitutes one of the book’s greatest strengths, Robinson offers no place for either her characters or her readers to hide from this reality. The scenes set in Isobel’s past, beginning with her earliest memories and culminating in the moment she leaves her house as a climate refugee, show the gradual disintegration of services, work opportunities, quality of life, and other societal pillars throughout her lifetime. Even the house she inhabits goes from being a pristine, heavily curated sanctuary to a flooded wreck, following gradual flooding of the bottom floor, eventual relocation to the second storey, and refuge in the attic during the monster storm. Houses are the ultimate symbol of belonging, of personal stability and of middle-class wealth, particularly in modern Australia – which makes the infiltration and deterioration of the house a powerful metaphor for the erosion of the norms and the world the characters believe in and inhabit.
The book is also notable for its focus on women’s and children’s experiences amid environmental and societal crises. This is a valuable focus in itself, considering women and children are regularly casualties in extreme situations but rarely have the chance to tell their own stories. It is especially noteworthy in The Glad Shout, however, owing to Robinson’s consistent efforts to explore how gender roles impact the lives of all her characters.
For example, from the first chapter, we see that it is Isobel, not Shaun, who hoists three-year-old Matilda on her hip and attends to her needs. Not long afterwards, it is Shaun, not Isobel, who joins “some of the blokes” (112) heading out into the city as a scavenging party. Consequently, not only does the bookend up devoting many of its pages to the hopes, anxieties, frustrations, and nuances of mother-daughter relationships, but it also imagines how individuals might fall back on gender roles in moments of tension, fear, and societal disintegration. Even before their house is flooded, Isobel observes that “in their house, it’s as if no advances have been made at all, like feminism hasn’t even happened” (267); and indeed, her perspective throughout the novel is ultimately a harrowing, brutally honest interrogation of motherhood and her own role within her family.
The Glad Shoutis perhaps most important in this present moment, however, for its radical imagining of everyday Australians finding themselves to be climate refugees. By depicting characters who represent a common brand of Australian life, the book narrows the willed distance between us and the global risk of climate disaster, water security, food security, property destruction, and forced mass migration. Becoming a refugee is no longer something that happens to other people in other places.
The book even confronts its characters with the possibility of being moved in and out of camps and cities without choice, and of potentially being separated from family members in the process. This is a stark reflection of white Australia’s own treatment of Indigenous Australians, as well as of processes influencing the refugee crisis worldwide. Robinson does well in teasing such issues out: the glimpses we get of the world beyond Isobel’s lived experience may not be comprehensive, but they do highlight the very real injustices suffered across the world today. The framing of these injustices in an Australian context, meanwhile, demands us to consider where our empathy lies, and whether we have responsibility or a moral imperative to act while we are still living prosperously.
The Glad Shoutmerits being read. It offers not only a glimpse of a possible future, but also a challenge – and a warning. The question is: will we heed it?
Rosalind Moran has written for anthologies, websites, and journals including Meanjin and Overland. She co-founded Cicerone Journal and was awarded 2018 Undergraduate Awards Global Winner for her research into biopics.