Last year a new press, Red Circle, burst onto the J-Lit scene with a handful of pocket-sized stories by contemporary authors, and 2020 sees them expanding their range, with two new books already out, and more to come. Today’s review will be looking at the first of those, an intriguing novella that explores the notion of how we can escape from the climate disaster we have created – and comes up with a rather surprising answer…
Takuji Ichikawa’s The Refugees’ Daughter (translated by Emily Balistrieri, review copy courtesy of the publishers) is a short dystopian work set in a sadly recognisable near future. The environment has collapsed, resulting in food and water shortages, and the ensuing societal changes mean that the gap between the haves and have-nots is wider than ever. Our focus is on the have-nots, and in particular, Aimi, the refugees’ daughter of the title, as she and her family roam the land avoiding ruthless soldiers and mercenaries.
And yet, not all hope is lost. Rumours have spread of a kind of sanctuary for refugees, hidden behind a mysterious gate that appears for forty-eight hours before vanishing, so when Aimi somehow catches wind of the gate’s new location, two families set off on an arduous (and dangerous) journey, hoping to reach safety. However, when they do reach their destination, all is not as it seems. The gate is just the start of the journey, and nobody can be sure that what lies on the other side is better than what they’re leaving behind.
The previous Red Circle books were all fairly brief affairs, but this one, as a short novella, is a little more in-depth and is able to go into its subject in more detail. It’s a clever, timely look at a pressing problem, and while Ichikawa’s depressing take is that it’s too late to avoid catastrophe, he does envisage a solution of sorts, albeit a rather unusual one. In short, the answer to saving our world may well lie elsewhere.
For a short work, The Refugees’ Daughter sketches out the situation nicely. The writer smoothly provides a brief overview of the main issues, including agricultural meltdown and water pollution, as well as introducing the concept of so-called ‘farmland buyers’, first-world businesses taking advantage of relatively clean poorer regions. What really hits home, though, is mention of the Complex, a tactical grouping of conglomerates, politicians and soldiers teaming up against the people, who have no choice but to become refugees, scouring the land in search of sustenance:
“How’s the food and water situation?” my father asked, and the other man shrugged.
“Ah, it’s just awful. Even if you hear rumours of rations and rush over, there are too many people, so you can’t really get anything. I once lined up half a day for a single roll. We saw a lot of orphans. They’re desperate. They could die tomorrow of hunger if they don’t get hold of any rations today. I’ve given up my spot in the queue before – it’s impossible not to…”
p.8 (Red Circle, 2020)
While we in the luckier parts of the world don’t have these problems yet (yet…), a lot of this is far too close to reality for comfort.
It’s when the writer starts to veer off in other directions that the story becomes even more fascinating. Aimi’s ability to pick up ‘broadcasts’, or telepathic signals, allows her to lead her family to the gate, and one of the prominent ideas of The Refugees’ Daughter is that of these end times producing a new brand of humans. The flip-side of poor health and rising infertility is a generation of children posessing special abilities, with enhanced empathy and even healing powers among them – and these children are the ones being called to the Shelter. The question, of course, is who exactly is doing the calling, with little known about the Builders, the supposed creators of the sanctuary. It’s not until the refugees pass through the gate and enter the Shelter that they learn more about those attempting to protect the Earth.
In the focus in The Refugees’ Daughter on a decaying world and a weak, yet kind, new generation, there are many similarities with Yoko Tawada’s The Last Children of Tokyo, and in many ways Ichikawa does more in a shorter piece than Tawada manages in her book. In both works, the younger generation is suffering from the mistakes of those who came before them, even if Tawada’s novel has the world fading out rather than burning itself to a crisp. However, I was also reminded of a book I read as a teen, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, in which children living in a post-apocalyptic society also develop unusual powers – which just shows that the end of the world has been a staple of fiction for far longer than younger readers might imagine 😉
Despite the excellent nature of The Refugees’ Daughter’s take on pressing global issues, the most interesting aspect for many readers will be the speculative-fiction side of the story. This kicks in with an intriguing central scene inside the other-worldly labyrinth, and the key to everything is what awaits the travellers beyond the gate. The first half of the book plays heavily on belief in something that can’t be seen, and there’s no coincidence that there’s a slightly religious feel to it all. Late on, the text explicitly brings Buddhism into play, yet for most readers, it will be a Christian idea that resounds most loudly. I challenge anyone to finish the book without thinking that Ichikawa’s main conclusion here is that the meek will inherit the Earth.
Above all, though, there’s a sense that what the world needs now is, well, love, and Ichikawa’s heroine has plenty of that to go around. Unlike some of the more active YA dystopian protagonists around, Aimi is a personification of the new matriarchal society the author is calling for, a young woman able to heal the sick and feel people’s pain (I’d be very interested in knowing how her name is written in the original as there’s more than a hint of ‘love’ in her name…). But this is exactly what the authorities can’t handle:
“The power of love frightens them. Because love is tolerant. It operates on another level from narrow-minded heroism. They’re scared that the people will realise that. A world filled with hateful words is their ideal, right? Punish Thine Enemies.“ (p.23)
Aimi’s family have found themselves in trouble because of her father’s book, The Kindness Circuit, and, like any dissenters, are to be punished for contradicting the party line (at which point I might just remind international readers that our own Prime Minister – AKA #ScottyFromMarketing – recently attempted to criminalise protesting about climate change…).
Climate change tragedy and the path to a new world is a lot to fit into sixty-five pages, and the story does feel a little too preachy at times. Yet on the whole The Refugees’ Daughter succeeds as a wake-up call to a world sleepwalking into catastrophe, and as a (pacifist) call to arms:
“But,” my grandfather continued, “that’s exactly why The Builders summoned you – because you’re descendants of refugees. Those born without fists meant for punching… Those who are already hurting… Those are the people who will heal the world. Suffering women and children, the souls of those who fell in war that still echo in the trees, the spirits that inhabit our horribly polluted natural world – these are the hands that will join together to restore the planet…” (p.59)
Exaggerated? Not really. As anyone living in Australia could tell you, the future of climate change is here now, and the time to act was yesterday. Let’s hope the next generations do a better job of managing our planet than the last ones, whether or not they receive assistance from beyond the gate…