Enclave by Claire G Coleman review – why shouldn’t we make a utopia? | Australian books

Enclave, Claire G Coleman’s Third novel in five years, continues the project she started with Terra Nullius and laid out explicitly in last year’s essay collection, Lies, Damned Lies: “I must do what I can to change how this country sees itself.” As the Wirlomin Noongar writer has pointed out, so much classic speculative fiction is “intentionally politically didactic”-activism in the Trojan horses of breathless plot twists, set design and special effects. “It’s a way to say things that otherwise no one will let you say,” she told an interviewer, “and that’s how I’ve always used it.”

Coleman’s targets in Enclave are clear: racism, homophobia, transphobia, inequality – all enabled, amplified, by an atomised, consumerist society. In titular walled, we meet 21-year-old Christine, who is wealthy, alienated and is stressed out by security drones, heatwaves and artificial grass.

But her growing claustrophobia – well-conjured by Coleman – is nothing to her fear of the “unsafe world outside”, which she glimpses only via heavily censored media, broadcasting daunting vignettes of environmental collapse and civil unrest beyond the Wall. Where, she notices, all “the criminals, the murderers, the attackers, the rioters, the thieves” warningly displayed on her screens are the same color as the servants bused daily through the gates. Us and them: the Schmittian fantasy underpinning the binary myth of a carceral state like Safetown, “everybody keeping watch on everybody else”.

This weaving of surveillance capitalism, colonial violence and climate crisis is an intentional and urgent theme in Coleman’s work. As the Gomeroi poet and essayist Alison Whittaker noted of Terra Nulliusit’s part of a growing current in literature – including Heat and Light, The Swan Book – that is confronting the ways “the apocalyptic moment is racialised”. “Aboriginal people live in a dystopia every day,” Coleman told the Guardian in 2017; as she wrote in Lies, Damned Lies, “the apocalypse is not coming, the apocalypse has begun.”

Enclave opens with WB Yeats’s The Second Coming: “things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Coleman studs the pages with its calamitous messengers – a falcon screams, a whirlwind forms a nightmarish “gyre” of rubbish on a suburban street. She is toying with the canon, but also placing menacing signposts of the unsustainability of the settlement’s brutal, exclusionary politics. Enclave is a clarion shout against demonising the unfamiliar, and the temptation to withdraw into a bubble.

It’s no fun to spoil too much: Coleman builds a satisfyingly suspenseful atmosphere, and the twists are part of the political punch as well as the overall experience. But things really kick off when Christine falls in love with a servant, Sienna – triggering a dramatic chain of events that puts her outside of the Wall. Suddenly Christine is the refugee, a vulnerable outsider at the mercy of whoever might take her in.

Coleman recently discussed the way dystopias and utopias are closer (and muddier) than we think. Christine does discover another world, “a type of utopia”, surprisingly close, surprisingly … doable. As a reader, you pause, and wonder why we haven’t done it already. Wiradjuri critic Jeanine Leane, in her review of the recent speculative anthology This All Come Back Now, writes about Indigenous futurism and how First Nations fiction is reimagining worlds of hope and nurture outside a western, capitalist clue that seems doomed to self-destruct. Before her abrupt exit from the “gilded cage” of the Enclave, Christine clings to “motes of resistance … like a flash of sunlight on a rainy day”; later, faced by a tangible alternative of community and connectedness, she’s almost unable to cope: “Nobody looked poor, nobody looked or sad or lost, faces held angry a lightness she had never seen before; she didn’t know how to read it.”

This lonely character has been taught to shun what could make her whole and happy, to feel shame for the most tender parts of herself. The novel is dedicated in part to “all our trans and queer sibs”, and the difficult emergence of Christine’s love for Sienna – “feelings that didn’t make sense, a malaise of the heart, a crack in her soul” – is one of its major catalysts. But Coleman also doesn’t let Christine just magically change. Her newly awakened conscience, her guilt about her privilege, even her physical removal from the Enclave, don’t undo the ways it has shaped her. “You are probably a fucking racist deep down,” Sienna tells her at one point, “and eventually it will bite me on the fucking ass.”

A dissociated narrator can get monotonous, even in third-person, even with frequent, and jarringly fervent, epiphanies; and Enclave’s supporting characters sometimes veer towards the 2D. But Coleman keeps things moving with strong, cinematic visuals, from sinister Arkley-esque streetscapes to Mad Max desert sequences, plus a few thrilling chase scenes. The book’s tropes aren’t exactly new (techno-fascist administration, feral twilight zone settlements, forbidden love). Then again, do they have to be? Coleman’s novel is built both as a page-turner and as a parable. If, as she’s written elsewhere, “Australia is a story settlers tell to settlers”, Enclave is one to set against it.

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