The End of the Ocean is Norwegian author Maja Lunde’s second in a quartet of novels about how climate change and ecological destruction is reshaping the planet and human life as we know it. Like the first novel in the series, A History of Bees, this glittering book follows multiple generations.
In the present day we meet Signe, a seventy-year-old woman who’s traversing the ocean in only a sailboat, seeking to reconnect with the love of her life. Flash forward twenty some years, and we meet two other people who are sailing the ocean for a very different reason: David, and his daughter, Lou, are refugees fleeing from a climate-ravaged Southern Europe. Their homeland has wilted in drought and become fractured by war. On their journey they discover Signe’s ancient sailboat, and their respective journeys become entwined in ways that no one could have predicted.
The novel (translated by Diane Oatley) is beautifully written but also a call for climate action. I spoke with Lunde about what inspired her novels, her thoughts on the climate crisis more generally, and what she sees as the power of fiction to inspire readers to think more deeply about climate change.
Like your previous novel, The History of Bees, this novel unfolds along multiple time lines. What is it that draws you to multi-generational story telling?
I write about nature and people, about connections, about the outcome of our actions. To work on a broad canvas when it comes to both time and place feels right. That said, the writing process is intuitive. In the beginning I didn’t even know [the story told in The History of Bees] would be four books. As I was writing it, several other stories kept buzzing around in my head, all of them about people living close to nature, many of them affected by environmental change. Like Signe, an old woman growing up by the foot of a waterfall in Norway. Or David, a young climate refugee in southern France, and Nicolai, a Russian zoo manager.
Suddenly I realized they were all part of the same story, that even though The History of Bees was almost done, I was not done. My characters, my stories were all pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle, and there had to be four books. A quartet. Each book can be read separately, but for readers who have the patience to read all four, a bigger picture will hopefully appear. In the last book I’ll try to connect all the stories, and the main story line will be set in 2110, that is 12 years after the future story in The History of Bees. While the first book had insects as a main theme, the second had water and global warming, and the third animals, the fourth will have plants, seed, and everything that grows.
Do you think about the climate crisis beyond what you write about in your fiction?
In part, The End of the Ocean was written out of gratitude. Being Norwegian means being able to live surrounded by water in any form, wild waterfalls and tranquil lakes, majestic glaciers and pristine snow, and of course the fjords and the ocean. It also means being able to turn on the tap and fill a glass of fresh, clean drinking water. This is a true miracle. But a miracle available to very few, and ever fewer. Our freshwater resources are emptied, the glaciers are melting before our eyes, while the world is getting drier and warmer every year. Therefore, the novel also originates from my own anxiety. In Norway we say “write where it burns.” This is where it burns for me.
The End of the Ocean focuses on two people–a father and his small daughter–who are refugees from a war-torn and climate change-impacted nation. Whereas many novels focused on climate change center around the most privileged, yours focuses on refugees. What inspired you to create David and Lou?
The story started with an image of a young man walking alone in a drought ridden southern Europe some time in our close future. I knew he was alone, I knew he had lost everything. And then I saw him finding a boat in a deserted garden. He interested me, his loneliness. I wanted to know more about him. Where did he come from, what had happened to him, and what about the boat? Then I realized he had a daughter, and then that his story was somehow connected to Signe’s.
Singe is also a beautifully written character. Where did she come from? Is she inspired by anyone you know in real life?
Signe is my mother’s age and inspired by that generation. But, like most of my characters, she is fiction. As with David, her story started with a picture, an idea of an elderly woman standing by a waterfall, being angry and passionate about the river. I wanted to know more about her too. And when I realized her story was connected to the waterfall, and the glacier it ran from, I also realized she had a boat. And that water, the element, was running through both these stories, connecting them.
The story about the glacier, on the other hand, is based on true events. There is a firm in Norway called Svaice. They have tried for several years to exploit the glacier Svartisen in the exact same way as I describe in my novel, in order to sell ice cubes to high-end bars on the other side of the globe. When I first read about it, I was not sure if I could use it in my story. It felt too much like fiction, like something a novelist would make up, to show the reader all the crazy things we do with nature. I still decided to go with it.
The story for me is both very concrete, but also symbolic. Cutting out ice from a dying glacier is a brutal and strong image. It is also what starts the story for my main character Signe. She loves the glacier and it resembles everything that connects her to her childhood, and to Magnus, the love of her life. Now he is the one in charge of the exploitation. This strengthens her fury, both towards the man she loved, and towards her own generation.
What power does fiction have over readers on the topic of climate change? Can it influence them to think differently? To take action? Or maybe there’s another effect it has on readers?
Fiction talks to our feelings. When we read fiction, we are in the story, we feel what the characters feel, we learn what they learn. While reports and journalism talk to our heads, fiction talks to our hearts. And to be willing to change, to do what is needed, I think we need deep engagement, we need our feelings.
My writing starts with feelings. Never with a message. I think about the story and the characters; I want to be true to them, to feel that they are alive. I don’t have all the answers, only a lot of questions. Why is it the human being that rules the world? What separates humans from animals, and what links us to them? And most important, do we have it in us to make the changes that are needed? I still think the answer to that last question is yes. We are able to do so much when we work together, our ability to cooperate and communicate across borders is fantastic. But I don’t know … Sometimes it’s hard to be hopeful.
What’s next for you? Any other projects (or book tours!) that you’d like my readers to know about?
The next book will be about endangered species. In this book readers will meet one of the characters from The End of the Ocean again and see how the books are all connected. As I said, I see this as a big jigsaw puzzle, with many pieces that all are connected and is one story. Just like the world.
The End of the Ocean
By Maja Lunde; translated by translated by Diane Oatley
Published January 14, 2020
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.