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Drifting after her final year in college, a young writer begins working part-time as an emergency dispatch operator in Sydney. Over the course of an eight-hour shift, she is dropped into hundreds of crises, hearing only pieces of each. Callers report car accidents and violent spouses and homes caught up in flame.
The work becomes monotonous: answer, transfer, repeat. And yet the stress of listening to far-off disasters seeps into her personal life, and she begins walking home with keys in hand, ready to fight off men disappointed by what they find in neighboring bars. During her free time, she gets black-out drunk, hooks up with strangers, and navigates an affair with an ex-lover whose girlfriend is in their circle of friends.
Two centuries earlier, her great-great-great-great-grandfather--the British explorer John Oxley--traversed the wilderness of Australia in search of water. Oxley never found the inland sea, but the myth was taken up by other men, and over the years, search parties walked out into the desert, dying as they tried to find it.
Interweaving a woman's self-destructive unraveling with the gradual worsening of the climate crisis, The Inland Sea is charged with unflinching insight into our age of anxiety. At a time when wildfires have swept an entire continent, this novel asks what refuge and comfort looks like in a constant state of emergency.
“An unnamed protagonist watches Australia burn as her body burns along with it . . . People around her experience disasters, and she keeps herself outside. She goes through trauma, and she doesn’t know she’s the one screaming. Magnificently uncomfortable.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Australian writer Watts punctuates her eloquent debut with deep-seated anxiety about climate change . . . The prose is consistently rich and loaded with imagery. Watts’s bold, unconventional outing makes for a distinctive entry into climate fiction.” —Publishers Weekly
“Painfully beautiful, immersive, yet at its core a novel about a person's love of place, of home, family, and about how this home, mental and physical, has fallen into danger. Gripping.” —Weike Wang, author of Chemistry
“The Inland Sea joins recent efforts like Richard Powers’s The Overstory and Jenny Offill’s Weather—two novels that have bent the genre norms of realism to ecocritical ends . . . Watts’s novel is best read as a call to start seeing beyond finite empathy economies. It plays with the idea that understanding ecological and personal catastrophes through each other is something cringey and then challenges that cringe’s gendered stakes . . . The large crises of the novel are shot through with smaller pains—indignities and heartbreak and badly inserted IUDs that serve as micro indices for other kinds of harm . . . In carefully lining up climatological events and the banalities of breakups, The Inland Sea suggests that climate crisis may very well be representable within the generic containment of everyday life. First we just need to acknowledge that the anguish of an English tearoom and the anguish of geohistorical catastrophe might be happening simultaneously.” —Molly MacVeagh, Los Angeles Review of Books
“An eyecatcher in both premise and language, which is rough-and-tough, visceral, and absorbing.” —Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
“Full of heart and disquiet, astute and precise, almost savage in its eloquence, illuminated about what it feels like to love, to be left, to want more.” —Leslie Jamison, author of Make It Scream, Make It Burn
"Fulfilling a need for fiction that deals with the climate crisis. I’m so glad this exists. Brilliant." —Olivia Sudjic, author of Sympathy
“A tricky marvel: melancholy and bright, ingenious and gentle, an emergency inside of an idyll. Watts is an exceptional talent.” —Rivka Galchen, author of Little Labours
“A sparking portrayal of dangerous thirst and unreachable interiors.” —Josephine Rowe, author of Here Until August
“The Inland Sea is completely absorbing and sometimes disquieting, as much a search for the self as an imagined body of water in the middle of the desert. I savored this novel, reading it slowly over a couple of weeks, its airy and restless voice always in my head almost like a narcotic, but I could have read it in one night. Madeleine Watts is a startlingly good writer who holds nothing back.” —Amina Cain, author of Indelicacy
“Madeleine Watts has delivered us the kind of messy, adrift female narrator we so rarely get to see: a restless young woman gazing toward adulthood from the perch she’s built on booze, risky sex, and all the trappings of the sweaty, clawing space of postcollege listlessness. Reading this book felt like stepping inside her skin, and I kept living there for days after I reached the end. The Inland Sea announces a voice and mind as brazen and bright as the Australian sun that radiates off every page of this novel.” —Kristen Radtke, author of Imagine Wanting Only This
“Brilliant and breathtaking . . . Gives a precise glimpse into a world and a woman coming undone. I want everyone to read this provocative, perfect book.” —Jeannie Vanasco, author of The Glass Eye