It is rare that a piece of writing is so intricate that every sentence must be read twice in order to understand something deeper, yet the themes jump out without hesitation. This is how I felt while reading The half-drowned by Trynne Delaney, a genre-bending novella which won the 2022 Quebec Writers Federation ‘First Book Prize.’ The story lands mostly within the speculative fiction category, combining magical realism and scientific fiction aspects to create a wholly new kind of narrative.
The half-drowned takes place in a dystopian (yet not at all far-fetched) future where the planet is in environmental ruin and everyone — who could afford to — has left earth to find home elsewhere. It centers around a small Black community who live off the coast of the Bay of Fundy, and have created certain customs in order to carry on the tradition of survival. The most important of these customs being the ‘Rites,’ a coming-of-age ceremony which involves mushroom tea, gold grills, and a brainstem simulator. The ‘Rites’ are their way of reliving history, and can change a person in many ways. This introduces the reader to Harbour, a girl preparing for her Rites, who begins to notice how it has changed her brother LaVon. The third character is Kaya — a being who wound up on the shore of the ocean as a baby. She struggles with feeling like one of them, and subsequently pushes people away, including Harbour, who she was in a relationship with briefly. The interpersonal relationships that the characters form with each other become the crux of the story and ensure that, despite a compelling and refreshing plot, the story remains largely character-driven.
The story weaves through their perspectives, while also being loose with the narrative pronoun. This looseness can lend itself to some confusion; however, a second reading helps clarify many of the references — especially to the two most interesting elements of the story; the prophet and the alien. These elements infuse an eerie sense of the supernatural and sci-fi into the story. The prophet is implied to be LaVon, while Delaney paints the alien as a kind of ‘god’ — a blend of a super intelligent machine, as well as colonialist forces. The alien is referred to as ‘it,’ identifying that it isn’t fully human. Delaney writes, ‘Its arrival might signal a return, to that easy life, if it can build itself a way out, if this is not all that’s left, if it can use a body to become more, to become what it was programmed to be, to supercede earth, to exit into the stars and to live on through abandonment.’ At one point, the alien transmits to LaVon, and through it LaVon learns it has been sent by the ‘angels’ or the people who had escaped to the sky. The alien wishes to take over a body to achieve some higher function. Whether this function is evil or not, or whether an easy life is desirable or not, these are questions the reader is left to answer themselves — staring with the harsh truths of responsibility, action, and greed.
Delaney touches on a number of real-world issues, although they explore them with varying depths. The most frequently recurring themes are capitalism and racism, and of course, environmentalism — the very premise of the story is based on the fact that the upper class has left the rest to live on a planet they believed was sure to die. That up in the sky they had been able to defeat death itself. It is also relevant to today’s economic structure that the lower classes tended to be people of colour. Interestingly, the people who managed to escape are referred to as ‘angels’ in the story, embellishing the idea that religion comes from a circular chain of humans having transcended some level of technology, à la Interstellar. This is the future. When Delaney brings up the past, usually through older characters who are remembering a life before the ‘midcentennial collapse,’ they often reference the African diaspora, and the transatlantic slave trade. For example, a conversation the prophet has with the alien: ‘We were over water sardined foot to head to foot to head. Piglet fetuses. We were on blocks getting ourselves chopped into pieces. We were south and north and east and west. We were cargo. And we were free in never being free. Free if freed?’
Another interesting element of the future which Delaney envisions is that traditional and oppressive models of love, partnership and gender identity have all but broken down. There is full acceptance of queer and polyamorous relationships, as well as non-binary people, at the end of the world because people are desperate for love in whatever ways they can get it. The attitude can be summed up in the way Delaney describes the townspeople’s attitude towards Kaya and Harbour’s relationship drama: ‘Everyone in town is tired of fights between ex-lovers. Move on. We’re all we got. If you don’t like what you’ve got, find something else.’ And in the way LaVon describes his polyamorous relationship, ‘We’re drinking but my thoughts all line up like ducklings and I know I love them both. Who’s the leader? Who follows? What follows? A trick question: We’re all the leader. We all follow.’ A bleak kind of hope. Kaya and Harbour’s relationship is also interesting; full of longing, yet both cannot seem to completely give into each other. In fact, Harbour spends the first half of the book contemplating asking for a gold chain she’d gifted to Kaya back. Through the journeys they each take with one another, we see how their acceptance for their worlds, each other, and themselves grows.
Delaney’s style of writing follows a loose poetic-prose blend; it often misses punctuation or uses anaphora to create a sense of rhythm. This provides an otherworldly quality to the work, while the prose and dialogue keep it grounded in the grim reality they’ve crafted. This style also helps the characters and the plot beats shine through. The juxtaposition between these two elements keeps the story moving without allowing it to fall into too depressive, or too abstract, a spiral.
This is a story that needs to be returned to so that it can be fully understood. The reading of it can keep changing depending on the lens one absorbs it from, which allows the half-drowned to have a multitude of meanings — although all equally terrifying. This story forces us to consider our own lives, the relationships and responsibilities we hold within them, and the contributions we make to the world as a whole. Delaney manages to ask readers these existential questions while painting a dark, thoroughly mesmerizing world, full of rancid imagery and yet, within it: a pearl, a new tooth. Delaney shows us how love, healing, and life seem to persevere, hanging on to the thinnest gold chain.