Téa Obreht’s New Climate Novel, ‘The Morningside’

Originally from the former Yugoslavia, Obreht now resides in Wyoming.

“The Morningside” takes place in Island City, a swampy version of Manhattan after climate change has flooded the coast. Rather than detailing the political structure of this battered place, Obreht drops provocative hints about the latest efforts to rebuild the city’s infrastructure and the government’s image. So many citizens have fled the rotting metropolis that federal authorities have recruited desperate refugees from abroad to participate in a Repopulation Program. Lured by the promise of a better, safer, more stable life, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free have arrived from Back Home.

As always, what they find is not what they were promised, but they’re cheap, eager labor, and the National Bureau of Posterity admonishes them to keep the faith. Just a little more belt-tightening, a little more hard work, and surely they would find themselves “back in the Island City of before. The city as it had always been, and still was, under or above water: The city of fanfare and electric autumns, of lamplit streets and music and dazzling marquees, of lovers tangling furtively in windows, of lush parks, of townhomes glowing warmly on a moonless night. The ensuing party would be magnificent.”

The voice that holds our attention is Silvia’s. She arrived in Island City at the age of 11 with her mother. To one another, they speak Ours, the native language of the old country they fled. When she relays the events of this novel to us, she’s looking back through many years of regret and dread, but during most of the story, that adult perspective is effectively blended with the girl’s electrified anxiety and unbounded curiosity.

There is much to be curious about and to investigate in this strange place, a surreal mixture of Gotham and Escher. Silvia and her mother live in the Morningside, a once-glamorous high-rise apartment building now crumbling into disrepair. While she waits for an opening at the local school, Silvia spends her days trailing her aunt, Ena, who works as the Morningside’s superintendent. This idolized relative from Back Home offers Silvia what her own mother cannot or will not: tantalizing stories that fire her imagination, the promise of access to “a world underneath the world.”

More here.