Thu, Oct 10, 2019 - Page 14 News List

BOOK REVIEW: Fictionalizing the plight of climate refugees

This strong debut novel imagines the life of migrants fleeing the effects of climate change in a work that mixes adventure with sociological analysis

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

MELT by Jeff Murray

I wonder how many Taiwanese are aware that the dominant theory about the spread of Micronesian peoples throughout the entire Pacific region, as far south as the Maori people of New Zealand, holds that their ultimate origins were the Aboriginal people of Taiwan?

The evidence is genetic (notably mitochondrial DNA, which can be used to trace descent through the female line over long periods) and linguistic, and the attribution of the origin of all these diverse movements to the Taiwanese Aboriginals is heavily favored by experts. In May last year, for instance, officials in Taiwan and New Zealand came together to deal with the issue, signing a document — “Arrangement on Cooperation on Indigenous Issues” — to establish a forum for contacts between Taiwan’s indigenous communities and the New Zealand Maori.

All in all it’s an extraordinary phenomenon, and something all Taiwanese should be both aware and proud of. New Zealand author Jeff Murray is a particular enthusiast for the concept, and it’s mentioned several times in his recently published novel Melt, an important and intriguing work.

The migration of the Taiwan’s indigenous communities was necessarily southwards, and this story, set in 2048, continues in that direction, with one of their descendants, a woman called Vai, going from the southern tip of New Zealand into the Antarctic.

It begins, though, with an eight-day storm over a Pacific island that persuades many of its inhabitants to migrate to safety in New Zealand, despite the arrival of aid from China. In doing so, one of them says, they are continuing the migration of their remote ancestors, indigenous people from Taiwan.

Publication Notes


By Jeff Murray

290 pages

Mary Egan Publications

Paperback: uk

But their problems are not over once they’re in New Zealand. There is overcrowding — 20 migrants in a two-room apartment, tuberculosis, legal issues and the government’s intention that they should only stay a short time before returning to an island they deem uninhabitable.

In addition, the temporary accommodation they’re offered is deeply unattractive, afflicted by drought or flooding, not close to any likely work, and places that regular New Zealanders wouldn’t be willing to live in.

But they do attend a meeting that important employers are due to attend. Global warming was making the Antarctic more important, they learn, so the towns of southern New Zealand like Dunedin were going to become busier and offer more job opportunities. The migrants at the center of this tale therefore decide to try to settle there.

Vai then makes contact with the captain of a vessel due to leave for Antarctica, which he views as a lawless place still open to unprincipled adventurers. The ship has a water cannon that can kill anything within 20 meters. She signs up as a crew member.

As soon as the narrative moves to the Southern Ocean, the novel leaps to life. The ship’s purpose is to intercept vessels involved in illegal fishing and whaling, and its first encounter is with five South African fishing boats. The New Zealanders successfully cut their nets. Next they encounter a Japanese whaler which they sink. A Japanese navy ship threatens but, seen by a worldwide TV audience, they are saved by a Chinese destroyer that offers to escort them back to Dunedin.

This section includes some conversations between Vai and the boat’s captain, which encapsulates interesting theories on environmental activism. Violence is often necessary, the captain insists. He’s essentially a vagrant, though he’s based in Goa where, according to his tales, life is not as peaceful as it may seem.

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