BOOK REVIEW: Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills

BOOK REVIEW: Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills

Picador
January 2018
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Literary / Speculative Fiction / Magical Realism

7/10

One morning, the residents of a small coastal town somewhere in Australia wake to discover the sea has disappeared. One among them has been plagued by troubling visions of this cataclysm for years. Is she a prophet? Does she have a disorder that alters her perception of time? Or is she a gifted and compulsive liar? 

Mills’ novel takes contemporary issues of resource depletion and climate change and welds them to one young woman’s migraine-inducing nightmares. Her prevision anticipates a world where entire communities are left to fend for themselves: economically drained, socially fractured, trapped between a hardscrabble past and an uncertain future. 

Oscillating between the future and the past, Dyschronia is a novel that tantalises and dazzles, as one woman’s prescient nightmares become entangled with her town’s uncertain fate. Blazing with questions of consciousness, trust, and destiny, this is a wildly imaginative and extraordinary novel from award-winning author Jennifer Mills.

 

 

The writing in this book is beautiful from the start, and it has to be one of the biggest selling points for this title.

The details build a complex of memories: bait left out in summer, maggot roadkill, freezer failure, vinegar and, finally, our asphalt squid. With that last, we realise what it is we’re looking at. The light isn’t shimmering off the sea like it’s supposed to. The light is bouncing off hard, still sand, and something else, many things, slick and lumpish things.
How do we see what we can’t imagine?
We swallow mouthfuls of air and breathe through our sleeves. We stare at the mess before us, at the sheer ugliness strewn across the seabed, and we look from side to side, at each other, and back at our cars, and again at the sprawl of what-the-fuck. The field of there-is-no-nice-way-to-put-this. We blink our eyes against the bleachy tingle.

Dyschronia is a hard book to classify. It’s definitely more of a literary tale, rather than general fiction, and there are speculative and magical realism elements, but it doesn’t entirely fall into any easily defined genre or category.

It takes place across three different time periods within a small, fictional Australian town.

We get to see the realisation and exploration of Sam’s (full name Samandra) migraines and resultant visions of the future.

The Sam who is watching and the Sam walking are distinct somehow, but in a slippery way: she’s also both at once. It’s an odd feeling, being here and there. On the one hand, it tingles all over, but on the other hand, it hurts like hell.
‘A dream,’ said her mother, when Sam tried to explain. ‘Don’t talk now.’ And it faded like dreams do, and she didn’t try to keep it.

As well as the town’s point of view (done Greek Chorus style) which starts around a decade after Sam’s first visions, following on from when they wake up to find the ocean has receded from them, as though angry with the town.

Down on the beach, there are bodies. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them. The bodies are all sizes, lying like pieces of raw chicken on the sand and weeds. The lumps stretch out into the distant haze. And uncountable number, disappearing into the distance. We cannot fathom how, how many, how.
And they stink. How they stink! The smell is baroque; it is white noise, it is aggression.

And finally, another eight years later, when Sam’s mother returns (she’s been gone since just after the ocean receded) and asks Sam a question about her own future.

It wasn’t right the way these moments, the worst moments, could rear out of their resting places. As if nothing ever passed into history, as if everything was only another layer of now, sticking over and over itself like old wallpaper. The past kept showing through. She just wanted it gone.

These timelines don’t necessarily appear in this order, and each of these quotes is from the first chapter of each, but through flicking back and forth between the three, it becomes clearer where and when the events are happening.

There is not a whole lot going on in terms of plot (there are events, but the story is not exactly plot driven), and there is a fair bit of exploration in terms of character, but nor would I call it character driven – it’s more a hyrbid of the two.

Readers are bound to be interested in the mystery, as the events within are alluded to from the start and then revealed over time and, as mentioned, the writing is gorgeous, and somehow dreamy yet tangible all at once. There are climate change and environmental impact elements, as well as the drama within the small town, the uncertainty of childhood, the impact of rumours, and so on, though truth be told, the Greek Chorus chapters could have done with a little more frenzy and disbelief if their “Oracle”.

At the start of the book it felt like this might be my first 10/10 book for the year because of that writing, but as it went on the novelty wore off a little, and it could be frustrating at times with the chapters hopping to another time just as we started to get somewhere… but it’s still stunning. The ending does go towards reducing the rating a little, as well. It’s not that it was a bad ending, and I’m incredibly torn as it is in part the perfect ending, and in part just a little frustrating.

In the end, this is a beautiful, though somewhat slowly paced book that is bound to appeal to readers who like literary stories with a speculative twist, and fans of books like Eleanor.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills

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