Blaze Island. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Eleven months after the onset of COVID-19, Catherine Bush opined that life itself had become a “kind of island” (“Catherine”). To weather the intense solitude of successive lockdowns, Bush turned to island literature, revisiting such classics as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins (“Catherine”). It goes without saying that literary islands are an ancient and protean trope that provides potent means for gauging cultural sensibilities. As discrete sites set apart from the main, literary islands may dramatize narratives of unwanted confinement, circumstantial hardship, unrestrained experimentation, or emancipatory reinvention. Whereas seventeenth-century literary islands often combined the thrill of exploration with lofty colonial aspirations, as Shakespeare’s The Tempest illustrates, the expansion of global trade throughout the eighteenth century contributed to the cultural reconfiguration of islands as scientifically managed sites. While eighteenth-century satirists used islands to critique contemporary shortcomings from without, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century novelists used islands as romantic symbols to express nostalgia for the perceived plenitude, freedom, or simplicity of mythic pasts. The ascent of postcolonial and gender studies prompted the proliferation of contemporary retellings of precursor texts, and contemporary Canadian literature boasts a remarkable number of feminist adaptations purposed to decentre Shakespeare’s domineering Prospero, including Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners (1974), Sarah Murphy’s The Measure of Miranda (1987), Constance Beresford-Howe’s Prospero’s Daughter (1988), and Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed (2016). In addition to authorial efforts to rewrite literary islands through a feminist lens, the existential threat of climate change has prompted the production of texts purposed to make an island of a planet to register the climatological transformation of Earth into an Earth-like or uncanny substitute—a trend exemplified by Bush’s Blaze Island (2020).
Inspired by Rupert Goold’s climate-inflected 2006 production of The Tempest, Blaze Island projects Goold’s theatrical adaptation onto a speculative island modelled after Fogo, a subarctic island off the northeast coast of Newfoundland where Bush spent eight summers researching her novel. First conceived in 2013, Bush’s fifth novel anticipates a climate-changed 2020 in which sooty particulate from drought-fuelled wildfires peppers Arctic permafrost with “black carbon” while flooded tidal marshes sever Nova Scotia from the rest of Canada. Amid such climatological precarity, Bush reimagines Prospero as disgraced paleoarchaeologist Milan Wells who, in flight from the world, relocates to Blaze with his dutiful nineteen-year-old daughter, Miranda. From the confines of a rustic meteorological lab, Milan enlists a British climate modeller, an Inuk climatologist, and a Sri Lankan nanoengineer to contribute to his Assisted Radiation Interception Engineering Limited project—a covert initiative intended to cool global temperatures by injecting into the stratosphere nanoparticles designed to simulate sulphate aerosols without eroding the Earth’s ozone. In light of this pretext, Bush’s climate-changed island is noteworthy for neither condemning nor condoning Milan’s ARIEL project. Rather, Bush peoples Blaze with intelligent, even well-intentioned characters who, driven by solastalgic grief, undertake deplorable acts of hubris.
Given the technical precision and scientific acumen that undergirds her novel’s narratological premise, it should come as no surprise that Bush’s father and sister are both scientists, the former a radiation oncologist and the latter a climate scientist for Environment Canada (Bush, “Embrace” 34; Bush, “Conversation” 14). Having been welcomed into certain climate-science professional circles, Bush confesses to modelling Milan in composite after geoengineer David Keith and climate scientist Kevin Anderson, as well as unnamed persons implicated in the 2009 Climategate scandal, in which the hacked release of private emails spuriously suggested unethical collusion in the reporting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Guelph Institute). Indeed, Bush’s long-standing interest in climate science also surfaces in veiled references to the 2010 Berlin conference, which saw fierce debate over the moral efficacy of solar geoengineering. In addition to glossing key climate-change developments in the late 2010s, when questioned about the impetus for Blaze Island, Bush cites novelist Amitav Ghosh’s 2016 call for contemporary authors to write realistic rather than speculative or dystopian climate fictions (Portman D7). Bush’s literary naturalism serves to thematically reposition climate change as a condition endured in the present rather than in some near or far future.
Initially titled “Elemental,” Bush’s novel relentlessly foregrounds human lives as enmeshed with the biosphere through episodic forays into deep geological time. In one striking passage, a grieving Milan reminds young Miranda that the ground beneath their feet had, some forty million years prior, numbered among the pinnacles of the Appalachian chain—a vignette likely seeded by Bush’s walking tours of Fogo with geologist Peter Croal (Guelph Institute). Bush’s efforts to recalibrate the significance of human life against vast geological time scales are likewise in keeping with Dark Mountain Project eco-activist author Paul Kingsnorth; both Kingsnorth and Bush decentre human narratives to amplify the presence of the “‘more-than-human’” (Bush, “Review”). Certainly, it is in Bush’s exquisite treatment of sea ice that her prose dazzles and enchants. At its finest, Bush’s literary naturalism hearkens to Stephen Crane’s artful treatment of the Atlantic in “The Open Boat” (1897). Filtered through the lens of melting ice, Blaze Island schools its reader in the differences that distinguish “pack ice” from “slob ice” and “ballycatters”—technicalities no doubt aided by Bush’s engagement with Chris Derksen’s cryospheric fieldwork (Guelph Institute). Sea ice does not merely float or melt in Blaze Island. Instead, Bush details how thousands of ice islands, calved from the Greenland ice sheet, are ferried south on the Labrador current in a “silent crush” that succumbs “mutely in the heat.”
Although Bush’s meticulous eye for detail excels when applied to the more-than-human, the author’s near-clinical precision often renders her novel’s human cast too spectral or aloof for sustained readerly identification. Yet in spite of the impenetrability of Bush’s human consort, Blaze Island is a timely, clever, deftly plotted, and deeply moving eco-thriller that cautions its reader against a technoescapist fix to ecocidal warming. To the extent that Bush advocates any particular action in Blaze Island, her novel gently nudges readers to broaden their awareness by creating occasions for more-than-human encounters. This ethos, which Bush enacts rather than expounds, surfaces most affectingly in fleeting instances of animism, as when Miranda’s would-be suitor Caleb Borders temporarily loses his human form to the wheeling flight of a “glaucous gull” and then, later, to the flash of a speckled cod in dark water. In rendering humans categorically inseparable from rock, wind, water, and ice, Bush’s climate-changed island succeeds in expanding the phenomenological scope of human sentience while unveiling the wondrous and oftentimes ferocious dimensions of the non-human. Humanity would be better equipped to respond to our present predicament, Bush suggests, if gifted with the powers of a sianigtalersarput: a person capable of seeing clearly enough in the darkness to “know the weather and ice.”
Bush, Catherine. “Catherine Bush: No Woman Is an Island—Then Along Came COVID-19.” Toronto Star, 1 Nov. 2020, www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/opinion/2020/11/01/catherine-bush-no-woman-is-an-island-then-along-came-covid-19.html. Accessed 30 May 2021.
—. “A Conversation Between Lynn Coady and Catherine Bush.” Literary Review of Canada, Nov. 2000, pp. 12-15.
—. “The Embrace.” The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning, edited by George Bowering and Jean Baird, Vintage Canada, 2009, pp. 33-51.
—. “The Review: Hill by Jean Giono, translated by Paul Eprile.” Brick, no. 99, 25 May 2017, brickmag.com/the-review-hill-by-jean-giono-translated-by-paul-eprile/. Accessed 30 May 2021.
Guelph Institute for Environmental Research. “An Artist and a Scientist Discuss Writing, Glaciers, Time, and the Climate Emergency.” University of Guelph, 2020, sites.uoguelph.ca/gier/emmanuelle-arnaud-and-catherine-bush/. Accessed 30 May 2021.
Portman, Jamie. “In the Eye of the Wind: Author’s New Novel is a Sizzling Ecological Thriller Set in Newfoundland.” Calgary Herald, 3 Oct. 2020, p. D7.