Monday, April 8, 2013

Reading Notes: The Sunlit Zone

This review forms part of my commitment to complete the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2013 and to read the shortlist for the 2013 Stella Prize. This book is the last of the Stella shortlisted titles. Links to reviews for the other 5 titles can be found under the Reading Challenges tab.

The Sunlit Zone is a verse novel, a form with which I am not overly familiar - in fact, I think Browning's The Ring and The Book and Dorothy Porter's Akhenaten are the only two I have previously read.  I don't remember much about the Browning, but I found Porter's book quite powerful. The idea of telling a long story through verse appeals to me, as both a reader and an aspiring poet myself.

Unlike Porter's book, Jacobson's isn't so much a series of sequential connected poems as a flowing narrative, told in verse rather than prose but no less linear for that. For me, it hovers between poetry and free-form prose, and captures the best of both. This is verse being put to the service of story and revelation; the narrative structure emerges under Jacboson's gifted hand with  fine, deft precision.

The Sunlit Zone is the futuristic - possibly science-fictional, possibly dystopian - story of North, born a twin in 2020 and fated to eventually become, in 2050, a biological investigator and broker of sorts, monitoring and reporting on the abundant genetic mutations flowering in the ocean by her Victorian coastal home. This is a world of genetic manipulation and mutation, of climate change and extreme weather, of skinfones embedded into hands and ultra-fast transportation. It's a world where things look like a hyper-accelerated version of the world we recognise, where many things are the same but some things are irrevocably altered. It is a strange, but not-strange, world, troubled but not doomed; a non-catastrophic, but still grey, projection of where the path we are walking might lead soon.

It's North's story, but it's also the story of her parents, Flora and Richard, and their lives; of genetically engineered perfect neighbour child, Cello Green; of North's first lover, Jack; of her co worker and friend, clone baby Waverley. Most of all, it's also about North's twin, Finn, who, it's suggested, herself represents some kind of mutation, with her webbed limbs, her gills and her strangeness that manifests as extreme neuro-diversity. Finn, who vanishes into the ocean in 2035, is the constant companion in North's story, and pulling off the poignancy and uneasiness of this shadowing, without ever resorting to sentimentality, is one of the true triumphs of this book.

It is often said by people who don't see themselves as poetry lovers that verse is less accessible, denser, than prose. This book puts the lie to that notion extremely effectively, to my mind. It is immensely readable, intelligent but also intelligible storytelling, deploying the full potential of verse to nuance mood, affect and flow. Jacobson effortlessly peppers the narrative with future technology and concepts and manages to explain, in a line of verse, what prose science fiction writers often take ponderous pages to cover. That these futuristic references never interfere with the human heart of the story - they lend it a sadness, a foreboding, without becoming the focus - makes this a beautiful example of how to do science fiction as well as how to write verse.

I really, really loved this book. I loved its spareness, its beauty and its strangeness. I loved the smell of the ocean that permeates through every word and every line, the sense of true things unfolding in deep places. One of my favourite passages is:
And dreamt a recurring dream
of a river trailed by weeds, its banks
as soft as cake, and crumbling.
It is always soft, and always I fall.
My skin transformed by scales.
My cheeks clefted with gills.
My coccyx elongated into a tail.
Finn beckons from the open sea
in a language I almost, but not quite,
hear. The current draws me in.
So now I have two favourites from the Stella shortlist - Sea Hearts and The Sunlit Zone. I'll be hoping one of them takes the prize, and I'll also hope that many people read these incredible books (and the other four shortlisted titles, which are also very strong) and get as much delight from them as I did.


  1. Hi, I just noticed this review and wondered if you would like to link it in to the new monthly collection of books that people loved on Carole's Chatter. This is the link There are already quite a few books linked in that you might be interested in. It would be great if you came on over. Cheers

  2. Kathy, thanks for linking up to Books You Loved. I have signed up to follow your blog and do hope you will follow Carole's Chatter too. See you again soon.