Rachelle Atalla’s second novel, after the post-apocalyptic The Pharmacist, is Thirsty Animals. This is climate fiction that could probably best be described as mid-apocalyptic. And given that it is set in Scotland, it should come as no surprise that it is dour and dark.
While no date is given, Thirsty Animals is essentially a day after tomorrow story. Due to changes in the atmosphere brought on by climate change, the former United Kingdom is in a deep drought. Refugees from England are massing at the border with Scotland as there are rumours of plenty of water in Loch Ness. But things are actually not much better in Scotland. Aida has returned from university in Edinburgh to her family farm near the border where she and her mother Miriam, uncle Bobby and his partner Sam struggle to stay viable. Aida’s world is thrown out of kilter with the arrival of a woman called Evelyn with her son and her pregnant daughter. Miriam was a midwife and the three throw themselves on and gain the mercy of Aida and her family. But while they are helpful on the farm, particularly as Bobby fights cancer, the three interlopers hide some deeper secrets.
Thirsty Animals plays on that most common of apocalyptic tropes: that people will essentially do anything to survive when things start to look bad. Aida does often try to do the right thing but finds that approach backfiring on her as if the world is constantly trying to teach her that good guys finish last. And Aida is not even that particularly good to start off with. As the situation gets worse, it brings out the true nature of the farm’s guests.
The overall tone of Thirsty Animals starts dark and never really shifts, except to get darker. Aida has essentially dropped out of university, is working at the local petrol station so sees refugees as they come through, until the border is closed and supplies start to run out. It makes readers who may not have thought about these issues when seeing them on television (the time when Cape Town almost ran out of water in 2018 gets mentioned) consider what it might be like if those impacts start happening to them. But beyond that message, the narrative does little but be dark, throwing in some “here are other ways humans can be awful” plot points just to drive it all home. This tone is nothing that a little very late course correcting can address.
Thirsty Animals is climate fiction for those looking to be depressed about the future. That is not to say the situation may not get as bad as it is described here. And that there are some unscrupulous actors in the world who will seek to take advantage of the chaos. But this novel does little more than make readers consider how depressing it would be to live in a world in decline, particularly if you did not have much to hold on to in the first place.