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A book Unsheltered on shelves, other books washed out in pink so it stands out.
Unsheltered, in situ at Unity Books (Photo: Unity Books; design: Tina Tiller)

BooksMay 25, 2021

It takes a lot to awe Elizabeth Knox, but here we are

A book Unsheltered on shelves, other books washed out in pink so it stands out.
Unsheltered, in situ at Unity Books (Photo: Unity Books; design: Tina Tiller)

Clare Moleta is a Wellington writer and IIML alum whose debut novel, Unsheltered, released last week. It’s one of the most exciting books we’ve read in years – and it has repeatedly knocked the socks off Elizabeth Knox. 

NB: Moleta works as an administrator at the IIML, where Knox is a workshop convenor. Asked to define their relationship, Knox said “Mostly I think I’m an admirer.”

This is an appreciation of Clare Moleta’s Unsheltered, a novel I’ve read four times now, over a number of years. It has changed during that time, its thinking refined and story brought into sharper focus. On each reading after my first one, despite “knowing what happens”, I’ve been thrilled and filled with anxiety and pity at what the heroine Li goes through, and awe at what Clare has achieved.

I was keen on Unsheltered when I first heard it described. I thought it sounded like a chase narrative. I really like chase narratives, stories in which the protagonist is pursued or – as in the case of this novel – is the pursuer, someone trying to rescue someone else. Li in Unsheltered is trying to find her eight-year-old daughter Matti, who she’s been separated from in a fire which broke out during the clearance of an unsanctioned Makecamp – a refugee settlement.

Li’s situation is extreme, and traumatic, but in the world of the book, the ruined world, it’s almost ordinary. Unsheltered is set in an Australia-like very unlucky country, a continent divided into a “sacrifice zone”, land abandoned to conflict or Weather; several Safe Zones populated by approved people and apparently run by corporate bodies and served by private armies; and large territories ungoverned in any way, full of precariously employed or wandering and homeless people, all gradually losing their foothold on a viable life. But we aren’t told this. Rather, we’re walked, or rushed, with Li on roads that run alongside fences that exclude her from the safe part of the world. We glimpse bits of things as if through the dust beyond those fences. We learn there is a perpetual war being fought with some nation to the north, a war which conscripts every child at 15, and that that is why Li and Matti are on the move, to find some place which will allow Matti to avoid that fate. We learn that there’s a brutally under-resourced resettlement agency which tries, ineffectually, to keep families together. The rest of our picture of the world is made of memories of lost places and people of Li’s earlier life, and rumours of havens and harbours, and maybe even a faraway “best place”.  

Unsheltered was a challenging book to get right. Or that is my impression from my time cheering on its sidelines. There were things Moleta had to dig down to and understand, like what it means to be a good parent, or to feel you’re a bad parent, or the necessity of trust and limits of trustingness. Part of the challenge was the novel’s more than usually stark contrast between what the protagonist thinks and what she has to do, her interior life and material needs. Li is highly alert to the present, to food and water she must find and how many miles it will take her. Yet all the while her attention is locked on an unknown faraway, homing in on Matti as she remembers her, and as she yearns for her. The bulk of Li’s attention bends to any means of continuing her search, to the snare with the rabbit in it, the house with a few intact walls that looms out of a dust storm, or a night’s dew collected in a bushcraft still. Moleta has us right there in Li’s scavenging and predatory existence, walking miles on a sprained ankle, hiding from violent men, digging for life-sustaining water-bearing roots, scanning every face for the only face she wants to see. 

This is an extraordinarily suspenseful story. At every reading I was acutely worried for Li, Matti, and others. But my worry was balanced with moments of beneficence, bumps of pleasure when Li finds something to eat, or hears a promising rumour, or gets a lift without having to pay for it in some damaging way. The story’s moments of beneficence seem equivalent with its gutting calamities. It wasn’t exactly that the events of the story offered me hope, more that the loving attention Moleta pays to the world made me aware of all the good and beautiful things still there, even in the relentless catastrophe of Weather and hardscrabble homelessness. In Moleta’s world everything might be killable – ecosystems, people, whole ways of life, the human spirit. But also those things might sometimes just come through by chance, and because they have that in them, the ability to carry on. The swelling in Li’s sprained ankle does go down, and a dry lake fills with water because it has rained hundreds of miles away to the north.

And, occasionally, there’s a little timely kindness. In a world where so many relationships have been reduced to the contractual, any kindness comes as a bit of a shock. Li’s feelings of gratitude make her almost savage. She can’t afford to soften towards the world. The world, with its vicious Weather and skeleton of society, and what people have to do to live in that world, and the ache of wanting to live. The novel hits us with a number of what appear to be unsurvivable events and, starkly realised, the slow attrition of daily life. Even at my fourth reading, these things felt like an end of Li’s story, despite a reassuring thickness of pages still to read. Then there’d be a turn in the story that felt like a resurrection, or the flinging open of prison gates. Many of those reprieves involved luck for Li, and the rest depended on the appearance of kindness. 

Li seems to scorn kindness. But really it’s more that, as a person with many losses and let downs, she can’t look at kindness straight on. She’s learned not to dwell on the things that are done for her, or the things done to her. But – and this is one of the great beauties of this book – Li learns to see her past as a resource among her other sparse resources. Another landscape she can explore for sustenance. Just as she is able to set a snare, or build a still and collect the night dew to drink, she is also able to lie in the darkness looking for everything useful in her past: the bushcraft taught by the man who raised her, and his persistent dreams about unspoiled places. And, when hunger and her own shame at losing her daughter are gnawing at her vitals, Li thinks about her partner, Frank, and what an able and delightful parent he was. This interior journey is as moving as the exterior one is exciting. We get to know and understand, sympathise and root for this remote and calloused woman. I really took to Li. She’s an A-1 kickass heroine. And I loved the thrills, chills and moral intelligence of this actually rather hopeful novel. Hopeful because it is a story which says that, with some luck and some kindness, a person can figure out what they can do, how they can help themselves and others, and what they should continue to fight for.

Unsheltered, by Clare Moleta (Simon and Schuster, $35) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

Read Clare Moleta’s essay about her book here

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