Watt’s prose is almost without emphasis, there’s hardly an exclamation mark, and, like Sally Rooney, she forgoes quotation marks, so that thought and dialogue run concurrently. The result is restrained, and supremely elegant. When she deals a death blow, Watts makes it feel effortless. To call The Inland Sea a “novel about climate change” would be to do it a disservice; it is about much else besides, capturing what it means to be young, wounded and afraid today, better than anything else I’ve come across recently. It is a masterful debut that demands to be read.
Without them ever feeling forced, parallels emerge between the figure of the unruly woman — specifically one who is sexually permissive — and the unmanageable natural world. Traditionally, men have tried to tame both, often violently so. Watts juxtaposes this brutality with the sensual, erotic draw of all things wild. She describes, for example, the mythical body of landlocked water from which the novel takes its title, as the “warm, wet centre” that 19th-century explorers believed “opened its legs out there in the heart of the dead, dry country”.
From the captivating opening section that considers the effects of a venomous snake bite – “Blurred vision, numb throat, a prickle in the soles of the feet, and then a burst of pain in every cell of your body” – to the narrator’s increasingly macabre preoccupation with dead women (among them, though unnamed, the Irish woman Jill Meagher, who was murdered in Melbourne in 2012), anger replaces fear as the narrative progresses. Through all the emergency calls the narrator fields, she realises there is an underlying prejudice against women: if they’re hurt, they asked for it.