Review: dreamtime by venetia welby

paperback, £12, Salt

This remarkable, disturbing work of literary fiction is like Heart of Darkness meets The Tempest. Revisiting the Animal Groom fairytale, it is set in the not-too-distant future, when humans are clinging onto existence by their fingernails thanks to environmental devastation. The human and environmental costs of violent, dominating masculinity are inescapable. At the same time, true love between a man and a woman is capable of transcending the bleakness.

The author’s descriptions of Okinawa and the Ryukyuan Islands—a remote archipelago between the southern tip of Japan, the northern tip of Taiwan, and China’s east coast—belies a reverential familiarity gained from extensive travel in the region. Between rising sea levels and occupation by the US military, those islands exist on the brink of an existential precipice.

The story follows Sol and Kit, survivors of a commune lead by a charismatic, dangerous, millenarian cult leader. Like many cults, the leader exploits and abuses the women and children, then disappears and takes up a new identity. Kit believes that the leader is her real father, and Kit suspects that he may be Sol’s brother, a possibility that keeps a brake on his passion for her. Kit tries to embody virtues that are absent in Sol’s father: faithfulness, loyalty, protectiveness, self-restraint and putting oneself second.

The book’s title comes from one of the cult’s rituals, lifted from Aboriginal Australians. The cult used drugs and ritual to avoid their loneliness and despair in a burning world, and Sol seems condemned to continue that escapism, living in the grip of addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs. She wants to find her father, now a US marine stationed in one of the 33 military bases in Ryukyuan. As such, this ‘daddy issues’ narrative works on multiple levels—a personal quest, a psychological deep-dive, and an interrogation of the system of male domination of nature, women and children.

Kit, harbouring his secret love for Sol, follows her to Japan hoping to keep her safe from harm. There, they meet Hunter, a buff marine who promises to take them to Sol’s father, and who has a fling with Sol while Kit looks on. Sol and Kit are in jeopardy: commercial aviation is about to grind to a permanent halt, so they may end up with a one-way ticket. On the journey, these two vulnerable outsiders become witnesses to the abusive relationship between the US and Japan: in-between chapters are snapshots from accounts of Okinawans living in US-occupied territory.

“Koza was segregated—streets for black marines, streets for white marines, and they fought all the time. They thought we were the primitive ones, ‘savages,’ but they were violent, drunken, sexually incontinent—like animals.

No girl was safe.

They could get away with anything—they’d just run back to base where we could not get them.”

Local friends tell describe the marines as death incarnate, raping and murdering women and girls from their community, then claiming the ‘rough sex gone wrong’ defence if caught. Sol’s father is believed to have killed a girl in this way. Kit considers this a good reason for Sol to abandon her pursuit, and to catch the last plane home instead. But Sol is not one to heed red flags in her desperate quest for fatherly love, identity and belonging. Following the mythic structure, she must come face-to-face with the predatory monster—whom she believes is her own blood—even though she could well be his next victim. 

To add to the mounting atmosphere of menace, a typhoon is on the way. Hunter claims that Sol’s father is located on ever-more remote islands, and the prospect of going home winnows as she follows her id beyond the point of no return, pursued by loyal Kit who wishes only to express his love for her. Whatever happens to Sol on that final island, the reader senses that it will be dark and profound. The narrative pulses along with a dark energy, cut through with glimpses of light.

One of the most beautiful passages of the book is the Ryukyuan meal shared with Sol and Kit buy a local host. “Once we meet and talk we are brothers and sisters,” she says, drawing a distinction between the evils of the system and the humanity of individuals.  

Compelling, surreal, claustrophobic, vividly imagined, exquisitely written and bleakly disturbing, Dreamtime leaves little comfort for the reader beyond the message that loving each other is all we have in the face of a corrupt social order and a hostile natural world.

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