By Kathleen Adamson (July 20, 2021)
On Time and Water, Andri Snær Magnason, Biblioasis, March 30, 2021, 240 pp., $24.70
According to Andri Snær Magnason, we need stories.
In his excellent book On Time and Water, the award-winning Icelandic fiction author turns his hand to a nonfiction climate change narrative, braiding family memories with scientific reporting and poetic literary association.
Climate change headlines like It Seems Odd That We Should Just Let the World Burn and None of This is Normal can leave many of us dazed and fearful. And as I write this on 19 July 2021, Europe is still reeling from a devastating flood surge that has killed hundreds of people. Wildfires rage in the Pacific Northwest, while melting glaciers warp and erode the fragile stability of ecosystems throughout the ocean. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), 650,000 people have already been displaced because of climate-driven disasters and conflicts.
Nowhere is untouched. In Montreal, where I write this, the smoke from the West coast is causing smog warnings. Readers two months from now may have a whole new litany of Biblical-strength disasters confronting them. Vast swathes of social media are crammed with of the silent screams of desperate witnesses. There is a feeling of collective paralysis. We are pushing against the upper limits of our ability to understand what’s happening, and more information doesn’t seem to be helping.
What do we need to help us break out of our stunned confusion?
In On Time and Water Andri Snær Magnason gives us what we need—stories.
With a quiet, deft tenderness, we are taken to his family dinner table, through the streets of Reykjavik, across a healthy glacier and a dying one. It’s not the first time Andri Snær Magnason has spoken out about climate change. In 2019, when the Icelandic glacier Okjokull ‘died,’ he was asked to write the text for a commemorative plaque:
“Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as glacier," it reads. "In the next 200 years all our main glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it."
This blue jewel of a book shows the result of years of serious reflection.
It is informative and well-fleshed out scientifically, but what makes it special is the emotional catharsis and clarity that Andri Snær Magnason brings to an incredibly difficult subject. He describes his grief when confronted with the reality of explaining sea turtle extinction during a presentation with his young daughter in the audience. He speaks with the Dalai Lama about what it means to hope under difficult circumstances and affirms the importance of witnessing these strange and dreadful days.
As a reader and a young person in these times of climate instability, this book made me feel ‘better,’ if such a thing is possible. I will be giving this book as a gift, as indeed that’s what Andri Snær has given us.
(Kathleen Adamson is a musician, composer, academic, and community activist based in Montreal, Canada.)
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