Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Nanoreview: Nothing but the Rain by Naomi Salman

A painful monologue on the violence of oblivion

In the rainy town of Aloisville, people have been forgetting the recent details of their lives. It began gradually, without anyone noticing, until repeated episodes removed longer and longer portions of their memories and someone finally figured out that the cause was something in the rain. Contact with water in this town makes you forget. Not all at once: a single drop will only take away the last minute or so. But if you're not careful outside, if you're not covered enough or watchful enough, a downpour will erase your identity in full.

Naomi Salman's novella Nothing but the Rain is told as a series of journal entries by an elderly doctor, Laverne, who desperately holds on to what's worth remembering by writing it down, the notebook effectively serving as a substitute for her mental faculties. She has lost count of how long Aloisville has endured the endless shower of forgetting. There are rumors, half-remembered theories, constantly rediscovered facts that never complete the picture of their situation. She knows that the town has been cut off from the world, that there's no phone signal and no internet, that food aid is airdropped every so often, that armed guards prevent anyone from leaving. What caused it? Why there? Why them? If the truth has ever been found, it's lost now. The humidity in the air suffices to make you uncertain of the passage of time, dooming you to a perpetual present.

Nothing but the Rain narrates a brief series of episodes in Laverne's life, centered on her ties to the neighboring families she's built a mutual support network with. Although solitary by nature, Laverne still upholds her medical oath, and thus fulfills her share of responsibility for keeping Aloisville alive. But the successive entries in her journal reveal dangers she's already forgotten, as well as regrets she stubbornly refuses to forget. A society deprived of its history, and therefore of its identity, reverts to the most elemental tasks of survival. Fight or flight, eat or be eaten. There are no certainties. As Laverne puts it, "I found myself wondering if this had happened before. I didn't know everything I'd seen; I didn't remember everything I knew." Life is reduced to the most immediate necessities, because there's no point in settling debts or making plans. Without memory, human dignity is lost too.

This is a book that reads fast and hits hard. I typically have a terrible time with unreliable narrators, but in this novella the explanation for the lack of details and the biased recollection is fully believable. It's not that the narrator has an agenda in her way of telling events, but rather that she can't trust her own side of the story. This way she has no advantage over the reader: she's as disoriented as us. She has nothing to hide; she just has many parts missing. This authorial choice overcomes the automatic mistrust that unreliable narrators produce, and instead sparks an empathy that feels true. We can't get to know Laverne more closely than she's letting us see, but it's not a frustrating experience because that's the limit of how closely she knows herself. The effect is a tone of sincerity that one rarely finds in tales of the apocalypse. Even when she's feeling jaded and pessimistic, it comes from a place of care instead of cynicism. Her use of irony brings the story closer instead of setting a distance.

Laverne confesses to her diary the impossible choices that impossible circumstances can force upon us. The point of the story is not finding the answer to what caused the rain, but exploring what's left of the human spirit when it loses everything that defines it.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Salman, Naomi. Nothing but the Rain [Tor, 2023].