Above the Withered Fields: Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen

The world is changing. On one continent, drought and famine ravage the countryside. On another, storms and hurricanes batter the coastlines. Civil unrest is common as humanity starves or drowns or butchers itself. Whether the item in use is rifle or grenade or carbon emissions, we’re all headed to the same place. We just don’t know how to stop it, or if we even can.

If this is starting to sound dourly familiar, it’s because Berit Ellingsen’s Not Dark Yet was published with eerie timing. As the United Nations climate talks that took place just outside of Paris, France this past month left the scientific community skeptical that the agreement would prove significant enough to prevent further climate change, it becomes even more difficult not to think we’re witnessing the beginning of our own undoing.

At the center of Berit Ellingsen’s debut novel, Brandon Minamoto, a former sniper for an unnamed outfit weighed down by the guilt of many kills. After his service, he moves back to an unnamed city on an unnamed continent, where he puts his keen eye to use as a photographer, and picks up work in a research lab at an unnamed local university. There, he meets Kaye, a charismatic assistant science professor who soon becomes his lover. But after an incident with a rogue owl in the lab that leads to their falling out, Brandon hightails it to a cabin in an unnamed town in the mountains, away from his boyfriend Michael, his brother Katsuhiro, and his guilt.

If the word “unnamed” seems a bit too ubiquitous in the previous paragraph, it’s because of Ellingsen’s insistence on describing an ailing world that shadows our own in as even-handed a manner as possible. No finger is pointed at one piece that isn’t pointed at the whole; no names are named, and all are implicated. Uncertainty, loss, and absence are some of the book’s most potent themes, and often, this lack of specificity has real power. At other times — like when a fellow trainee at an astronaut training center refers to a similar program “on the eastern continent” — it feels too constructed.

What’s this about a program? Well, similar to the privately funded Mars One mission in our own world, although whether the intention is to colonize or simply to go and return remains unclear. Brandon applies, in spite of the epilepsy-like losses of consciousness he endures throughout the book, and of the investment he has recently made in the experimental development of the land around his newly bought mountain cabin — can the new, warmer climate sustain fields of wheat in place of its native heather, his neighbors wonder? — and of the relationship he insists he is dedicated, even though much remains entirely offstage.

Not Dark Yet’s ambitions are somewhat oversized considering the constraints of such a slim volume. The strands of the story feel disparate throughout much of the middle of the book, in part because Ellingsen’s restrained diction refuses readers a close look into the inner workings of Brandon’s conscious mind. (His foreboding dreams, on the other hand, are depicted in detail and beautifully reflect his fraught uncertainty.) There is a powerful elegance in that restraint — Ellingsen’s attention to the detail of the natural world and to the marks humanity has made upon it is almost staggering in its precision — but it comes at a price. Brandon is most certainly the strong and silent type, and without more access to his thoughts, that silence feels like being left in the dark.

That said, maybe that darkness is the point. Ellingsen has noted that her title comes from a haiku by the 18th Century poet Yosa Buson: “Not quite dark yet / and the stars shining / above the withered fields.” Withered already, and so long ago. How could they possibly grow again in a world so poisoned?

There’s a quiet tension running through Not Dark Yet, a feeling that even if humanity did decide to come together and fight against its self-inflicted doom, both its recourse and its fate would remain uncertain. All this makes the novel’s finale — a haunting meditation on purpose and nothingness that somehow manages to make every previously disconnected storyline count — an even more remarkable feat.

A stark drama with a tight focus on the natural world and humankind’s perennially fraught relationship with it, Not Dark Yet stares straight into the dark eye of an impending Armageddon — the one we’re making for ourselves.

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