Book Review: Exodus by Julie Bertagna
Exodus by Julie Bertagna is a compelling coming-of-age tale in a world ravaged by catastrophic sea level rise. The colorful characters, the contrasting low-tech and high-tech communities of survivors, and the long and interesting heroic journey of a young woman displaced by climate change, come together to make this an entertaining and thought-provoking story.
Genres: Climate Fiction (Plot), Climate Fiction (Refugees), Young Adult
Genres are dynamic frameworks that describe texts with similar or related forms and contents. Readers and authors alike are free to ruminate on the nature of genre and how it relates to any given text. For Salvage, three different genres come to mind: Climate Fiction (Plot), Climate Fiction (Refugees), and Young Adult.
Climate Fiction (Plot)
The plot of Exodus is focused almost entirely around climate change and our responses to it. It starts in the year 2099, when much of the land we know today is believed to be underwater, and an isolated community of survivors lives a difficult but largely peaceful rural life on an island. As the plot unfolds, everything on the island changes, and we discover more and more about what’s happening with other communities of survivors. The entire main plot arc is all about catastrophic sea level rise, climate refugees, and people’s efforts to build a new society in the aftermath of global climate disaster.
Climate Fiction (Refugees)
Climate refugees play a central role in Exodus, which is surely what inspired the title of the novel. The main character, Mara, becomes a climate refugee. Much of the plot and character development revolves around how these climate refugees survive, how they may eventually may find a new home, what the more settled survivors of the climate apocalypse are doing (and not doing) for the climate refugees, and so on.
Exodus falls into my favorite category of young adult fiction — namely, stories that hit all of the high notes of the genre, but do so in creative and engaging ways that are accessible and enjoyable to older readers too. It’s a coming-of-age story that is driven by real, complex, life-or-death challenges in Mara’s life rather than brooding teen angst, overwrought love triangles, or the like. Mara is a young woman who has to grow up quickly under difficult circumstances and find the strength, insight, and courage necessary to survive and help those she cares about do the same. It has a fascinating, colorful, and complex cast of characters, an equally entertaining and compelling setting, and a rather unusual and creative plot unlike any other climate refugee tale I’ve read.
Strengths of Exodus
Exodus has a lot of strengths in terms of character, setting, and plot.
The main character, Mara, and a lot of the supporting characters are very interesting and well-developed. As the story unfolds, there are a lot of strange and interesting characters whose quirks and charms arise directly out of their place in the dystopian post-flood setting — the feral urchins swimming and scampering through the ruins of the old city; the tribe of naturalists living in the shadow of the futuristic city rising above the waves; the pampered high-tech denizens of said city.
The setting is an interesting sci-fi exploration of what human civilization might be like in the aftermath of rapid catastrophic flooding that swept away most of civilization as we know it. The masses of climate refugees who keep washing up outside of the city’s imposing sea walls aren’t particularly well-developed as individuals, but they and their struggles serve as a powerful part of the dystopian setting and plot. The surreal, mostly-submerged ruins at the base of the city served as an interesting contrast to the clean, bright, shiny, high-tech urban environment rising above the ocean. Starting out on a small, isolated island and gradually revealing more of the setting as the plot develops was a good way to reveal the setting to the reader as Mara herself discovered it during the course of her journey.
The plot was an interesting and uncommon take on the story of a climate refugee. In addition to serving as a coming-of-age story, the plot drives the main character from her relatively quiet and peaceful life on a storm-ravaged island, out onto the ocean, into a sea of fellow climate refugees, and ultimately into a position where she may be able to do something about the sorry state of life for many survivors of the global climate catastrophe. It’s a big journey for one character — almost too much, really. But I liked the fact that she made that full journey. Some climate refugee tales, or other apocalyptic tales, just deal with the story of characters struggling to survive in a harsh world, with their actions ultimately having little impact beyond sheer survival. The main character in Exodus did have to struggle to survive, but that wasn’t the beginning or the end of her story. Having an “everyday” character experience both the struggle for survival and the empowering opportunity to create change can help inspire the reader to do the same in real life.
Weaknesses of Exodus
The one big weakness of Exodus in my mind lies in the details of the digital reality aspect of the setting, which ends up playing a surprisingly major role in the main plot. The author is attempting to predict what communication technology will be like almost a century in the future, which is a very difficult thing to do. I liked the general idea of a vast digital reality that people spent a lot of time working in and exploring, and I liked the idea of an older segment of that world that is abandoned and unknown to most people using the system. But something about the whole thing felt unrealistic and cheesy — a cartoonish caricature of advanced internet communication rather than anything that actually seemed more realistic and intuitive. At first, I was put off by the quirky and somewhat unrealistic look and feel of this digital world. But then it occurred to me to check the publication date and note that the novel was originally published back in 2002. For its time, it was actually an impressive take on the idea. And the rest of the book is compelling enough that it was easy to achieve a suspension of disbelief about a quirky and somewhat dated take on digital reality.
Closing Thoughts on Exodus
Exodus is a compelling coming-of-age tale in a world ravaged by catastrophic sea level rise. It will have a special appeal for readers interested in climate refugees, strong female leads, both low-tech and high-tech apocalypse survivors, and dystopian futuristic societies that have been largely shaped by catastrophic climate change. But really, this is a novel that should have broad appeal beyond the confines of a narrower genre fiction audience. The colorful characters, the contrasting low-tech and high-tech communities of survivors, and the long and interesting heroic journey of a young woman displaced by climate change, come together to make this an entertaining and thought-provoking story.