EJ Swift plunges into the climate-fiction sub genre with the at turns terrifying and hopeful novel The Coral Bones. Told across three narratives – a past, present and future – The Coral Bones is also a love letter to The Great Barrier Reef and all of the creatures that inhabit it.
The action is anchored by the story of Hana. When the book opens, Hana and her research partner Aaron diving off Lizard Island on The Great Barrier Reef discover a dead body in a dinghy, painted white and with the message: This is what it looks like when coral dies, scrawled on his body. Hana is a scientist and with Aaron is recording the bleaching of coral and trying to find ways to breed more climate resistant coral species. Hana has more problems than this, though, and is still also processing having walked away from her girlfriend. The other two strands of the story are set in 1839 and some undefined time in a climate-blasted future. In the first, Judith finds herself abandoned by her mother and inveigling her ship captain father to take her on his botanical voyage of exploration up the east coast of Australia. Two hundred years or so after Hana, as society tries to navigate through the ‘climate bottleneck’, Telma is also heading to the same part of the coast, hunting down a long lost seahorse known as a weedy seadragon.
The stories do come together eventually as the three characters leave traces across time, but they are, for the most part, only thematically linked. Judith is working with naturalists and botanists to understand and record the teeming life on the Barrier Reef. Hana is witness to the slow destruction of this critical ecosystem. And Telma is living in a post-extinction world, trying to preserve what is left and bring creatures back from the brink. These are characters who face their own particular personal challenges but still manage to wonder at all of the beauty that the world can deliver.
There is plenty of climate fiction around that imagines a bleak future. The Coral Bones does something a little different. Swift delivers a bleak present, one in which we can see the destruction that we are responsible for but do not have the political or social will to confront it. And while his future is fraught (and, ok, a little bleak), it is not a dark one. It is one in which mankind has adapted to the changes to the world and is trying to find a way through to the other side. If not to reverse the impacts of climate change then at least create a new world. And she does all this with a memory of when these places were resilient to everything pre-industrial mankind could throw at them and with hope that we can get there again.