‘We know that memories are not fixed or frozen…but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.’
– Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks
Gavin Chait’s second novel, Our Memory Like Dust, hits hard from page one. Depicting a not so distant future where Earth is ravaged by war, suffering and loss, the novel warns us that we must take responsibility for our actions before the fate we carve for ourselves and our descendants becomes flawed and dangerous.
The novel follows several strands which are set up early on. Each are rich, complex and relevant, pulling the reader through a fast-paced narrative; a tense drumbeat drawing us ever closer to the dramatic events it presents. Set in West Africa, the lives of Shakiso, a refugee worker; Farinata Uberti, the ruthless CEO of Rosneft energy company; and Ansar Dine, a jihadi tribe, intertwine through the actions of a mysterious blue-eyed man, Simon Adaro. They each have their own motive – to resettle those who are lost, to become the world’s most powerful energy company, to undermine the social structure and become revered and feared. Simon Adaro’s motives are less clear; he is at once philanthropic, ruthless, secretive and loyal, either charming or unsettling every person who crosses his path. Shakiso is drawn to him, sensing a powerful affinity beneath his business-like exterior. However, she soon realises that he is a target, sought out by dangerous enemies in Rosneft and Ansar Dine, and becomes embroiled in a power struggle that threatens the world as they know it. Technology is at the forefront of politics in the novel, as a group of corporations throw their weight around, vying to lead the energy market, brutally ignorant of the impact their actions are having on the rest of the world’s inhabitants. Times have change and progressed, but Chait is careful to maintain that the issues are still the same.
Far from a novel preaching to the masses, Our Memory Like Dust has a complex narrative rooted in storytelling. The novel is peppered with stories told by Gaw Gon, a mystical figure who shape-shifts depending on the audience of his tale – he appears to some as a wise old man, to others as a huge baboon. The listener is guaranteed an immersive experience as they settle down to hear him speak, and can never be sure that their interpretation is the same as their neighbour’s. Stories have power in the novel; they foreshadow events, reveal a person’s true character, lay souls bare. The shifting, drifting population of the world have little to their name, but hold on to the myths and legends they have carried with them from generations past. As they seek refuge in a place they cannot call home for long, they introduce their genii and gods to the land, where they take root. The genii are ambivalent forces, threatening yet kindly; with one hand they offer guidance and with the other they incite fear. Even the most powerful characters seek their wisdom, and are little more than pawns in their own narrative. In Our Memory Like Dust, myth and reality are fluid, and so are memories. Like the sand that relentlessly drives against the characters in the novel’s desert setting, memories are ever-shifting, ever-changing, but they have the power to determine fate, bring people together and drive them apart. Memories in the novel are collective; they are physical, part of the earth and air. Characters’ eyes are clouded with memory, they are haunted by it. Memories fuel passions, hatred, and desire – Shakiso is determined to learn from the past so it will never be repeated, while the jihadis of Ansar Dine are motivated by their rage over past injustices. Memories also offer hope, solace, a sense of home – the refugees who are displaced and downtrodden are always clinging to their cultural heritage and the strength it provides. Amid the chaos of war, the rapid advancement in technology and the power struggles of the few deciding the fate of the many, all are bound together by memories of what has gone before, and what is yet to come. Through his portrayal of memory as a tangible force, Chait encourages the reader to consider their role – we are forging the memories that Earth’s future occupants will take as myth; we hold power in our hands that must not be misused.
Our Memory Like Dust is fast-paced and gripping, but Chait does not skip over detail or plot to maintain this. His settings are rich and visceral – it is possible to feel the incessant desert wind whipping sand into your eyes, or the claustrophobic heat that shimmers and shifts, playing tricks on the eyes. He writes of familiar countries and cities, but they have changed beyond imagination – London is largely under water due to flooding caused by climate change, for example. Tension is maintained throughout the novel, largely by Chait’s unique and complex characters. Each has a backstory, a motivation; they are all conflicted and not purely ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Both the heroes and the villains have equal page-time and the opportunity to tell their own story, to use their voice. The novel’s detailed, shifting storyline can be hard to follow at times – there are multiple characters, complicated motives, tangled alliances and rivalries. The first few chapters require a large amount of concentration as a range of characters are introduced, and scenes fly by with little revelation. However, once the reader becomes familiar with the characters, it is difficult not to be drawn in to Chait’s intelligent writing – the emotion is raw, the action is thrilling and the hope present throughout the novel is uplifting. I raced through the final few chapters, hooked on the dramatic and tense narrative, and was itching for more after reading the closing lines.
Our Memory Like Dust proves that Chait is a unique voice in science-fiction writing. The novel is poignant and thoughtful, part warning fable, part intelligent reflection on modern society. Relevant and engaging, Our Memory Like Dust is a novel for our times, and perhaps the one we all need now more than ever.