‘Thirsty Animals’, by Rachelle Atalla 

Following the success of her claustrophobic and chilling debut novel, The Pharmacist (2022), Rachelle Atalla returns with another dystopian vision of the future which depicts the consequences of climate change through the lens of a world where drought is impending. Divided into three segments: Spring, Summer, and Autumn, this novel is impeccable when it comes to the author’s willingness to confront the major concerns of our time head on. 

We are introduced to Aida, a diabetic twenty-something girl who has been forced to return to her home and live on the family farm with her mother Miriam and Uncle Bobby. She works in a service station six miles from the English border where supplies of bottled water have dwindled to a critical point and those available for sale exchange hands for prices bordering on the usurious. The opening lines give an indication of the hostility and danger which Aida faces daily: ‘Outside, a man was sitting on a stool between two parked cars, cooking on a disposable barbecue, while a woman squatted behind him, scrubbing clothes in a small basin’ (p. 1). Aida’s mother enquires as to whether the people who loiter are likely to be present throughout Aida’s shift, as though there is an atmosphere of latent violence or imminent danger lurking. Aida listens to an interview where the plan is to build more desalination plants in order to harness the power of the sea against the droughts and this is juxtaposed with an op-ed piece by a member of the baby-boomer generation;

a dumpy wee man that was talking now, sweating at the temples, moaning about the unnecessary money coming from the taxpayer’s pocket. I’d seen his type before, usually called Nigel or Clive […] no doubt be mortgage-free with an immaculate garden that he was no longer allowed to water. (p. 11)

The scene-setting is both plausible and characteristic of the divisive sociopolitical media landscape that we witness in modern Britain. Atalla’s eye for context and the ability to combine political commentary with near-future fiction makes her a consistently astute and relevant novelist. 

Aida serves customers who have migrated to Scotland from England with visas sponsored by family living near Fife. South of the border is described as ‘Proper Third World shit’ but the observation that ‘terrible things have always been happening to people. We just never really wanted to look at them now’ (p. 16) is a poignant reminder of how globalisation and the advent of social media have numbed and desensitised broader societal reaction to atrocity and hardship until it affects us directly. Upon her return to the farm, Aida admits that ‘I had been so desperate to leave the farm, so desperate to move to the city (Edinburgh) that I’d never really given much thought to what I was leaving behind’ (p. 25) and highlights the ongoing trend for a migration away from the countryside into the city for more opportunities. 

It is this geographical boundary where the conditions are so appalling there’s attempted mass migration to Scotland which is curbed by stringent restrictions. The brutality of the scene where Aida witnesses these attempts and the subsequent crackdown by the Border Guards lingers long after the final pages have turned and is contrasted with the death and brutality Aida experiences on the farm when she has to deal with distressed animals:

Two soldiers were dragging a man by the arms, his legs trailing across the tarmac. His clothes were filthy, his body fragile and weak. They came to a stop and pinned his face to the ground, elbows pressing into his cheek. […] The swell of people behind the border started shouting and chanting – a primal, destructive noise. (p. 243)

The sense of animalistic instincts coming to the fore and his subsequent execution highlights how visions of brutality in the most desperate of situations presses upon the reader how swiftly societal constructs can descend into chaos and authoritarian behaviour. The characters’ helplessness and powerlessness is palpable with shocking, sinister overtones. The sense of isolation and prospective death is emphasised when Aida mother comments that ‘people can due or go mad in plain sight and people still don’t notice. So, really, it makes no difference whether we’re here, or in a building with hundreds of people’ (p. 38). A bleak prognosis which highlights just how isolated and exposed people are in such a time of desperation. 

One day, strangers (Evelyn, Peter and Rebecca) arrive at the farm seeking help for Rebecca who is pregnant and purportedly bleeding. Aida’s mother, a midwife, is especially suspicious of their motives and Bobby treats them as interlopers. The family agree to help with jobs around the farm as part of their stay but it is conditional on them leaving when the baby arrives in Summer. The water situation is the raison d’être for all the reactions and dynamics that arise which causes understandable fear and suspicion of strangers. The marked contrast between a news article explaining how water companies’ technology still cannot prevent the loss of sufficient water to support millions of people and the scolding Aida receives for leaving a tap on longer than necessary serves to remind the reader that dangers lurk both within and without – on a micro and macro scale. 

One aspect of Atalla’s work I am particularly impressed with is her ability to make the mundane and repetitive into compelling plotlines. The claustrophobia of The Pharmacist was more inclined towards a thriller with the tensions of a post-apocalyptic world whereas Thirsty Animals is more expansive with the environment but highlights the day-to-day routines for survival and how, even with the arrival of the family, there is a gruelling need to just get by and try to avoid the escalation of tensions between the individuals on the farm. There are even two intimate scenes – one where Aida sleeps with Peter in a hotel and her outburst of joy and relief are contrasted with the absence of any eroticism in the language – it’s over in minutes and feels perfunctory or functional. Similarly the slow demarcation between humans and animals (alluded to in the title) is highlighted starkly when Aida notes, following Rebecca giving birth and the ban on showers, ‘Sheep and cows had perfected the talent of licking themselves clean; perhaps that was what we’d end up resorting to’ (p. 228). 

The situation becomes more resonant of Covid as the novel progresses – under powers permitted by the Drought Act, the government impose an enforcement zone with a radius of ten miles with no movement outside that perimeter. In a scene reminiscent of the economic damage suffered during the pandemic, this consigns Aida’s employer to closure since the workers cannot attend to maintain the shop. Aida and her colleagues take the remaining stock from the shop in one act of preservation. The Foot and Mouth epidemic is also alluded to when it comes to discussions around culling livestock on the farm in order to stave off the onset of further pressure on resources.  

Once again Rachelle Atalla has pulled off a novel which is both harrowing and compulsive,  gripping but which forces the reader to take a long hard look at themselves and question the lengths to which they would go to help their family survive. There is an inevitability inherent in the decline of the farm and the premise of the novel presents a view of the world that is sadly all too possible to accept given the heat of previous summers. It’s dark, bleak and irredeemably horrific at times but I could not stop reading until the final page.

Thirsty Animals is published by Hachette

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