One of the themes I wanted to explore in The Coral Bones was the relationship between human beings and non-human animals and beings, and how those relationships have changed — and could change for the better — over time. I’d always conceptualised the novel with multiple timelines and knew that I wanted to reflect both forward and back. Each timeline brought its own specific challenges.
Climate breakdown, and the bleaching of coral reefs caused by heating oceans, is at the heart of Hana’s contemporary storyline, so I decided the historical narrative should be situated early in the fossil fuel age. Whilst Judith is writing her diary in 1839, steam is beginning to revolutionise the world, at a cost no one — at least, no one in Judith’s colonial British society — could imagine. My last novel, Paris Adrift, included historical sections, but those were from the perspective of a time traveller. Writing a historical POV offered a whole new challenge in developing the voice and trying to instil some period texture. Whilst Judith pushes against her social constraints, she is still a product of her time and subject to the worldviews and prejudices of the Western age of exploration — full of enthusiasm for knowledge and discovery, but inextricably linked with imperialism.
The contemporary narrative posed different challenges. I started working on the book in 2016 and originally envisaged Hana’s story in response to that year’s mass bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef. I frequently came across the phrase ‘canary in the coal mines’ to describe what was happening to corals as a warning sign for wider climate breakdown. The pace at which climate-related events have accelerated since then is overwhelming and terrifying, not least of all the devastation wrought on Australian ecosystems by the wildfires of 2019-20. The science, both predictive and responsive, is constantly changing too. Situating Hana’s storyline amidst these world events, whilst not pigeon-holing it to a specific year or event, was a balancing act.
Telma’s storyline projects forward the same distance as Judith’s projects back, and is set towards the end of the twenty-second century. In this narrative, I wanted to find a balance between the loss resulting from climate breakdown, and the hope in humanity’s efforts to restore ecosystems and in evolving attitudes towards our fellow inhabitants of the planet — attitudes which also look back to pre-agricultural connections between people and their environment. I wanted Telma’s world to show progress, technologically and behaviourally, and learning from the past — from older, wiser ancestors.
All three timelines involved extensive research and a common challenge across each narrative was trying to use enough detail to make the world feel real whilst not detracting from the characters’ stories. Publishing a book is always a collaborative process and this was one of many areas where I was hugely grateful for the keen eye of editor Dan Coxon.
With a novel that switches between different timelines or characters, there is always a risk that one storyline may be more or less compelling than another, and inevitably readers may be drawn to one timeline in particular. I hope the connections between Hana, Judith and Telma’s stories bring them together for the reader and that their voices, from past, present and future, resonate in some way.
Three women: divided by time, connected by the ocean.
Marine biologist Hana Ishikawa is racing against time to save the coral of the Great Barrier Reef, but struggles to fight for a future in a world where so much has already been lost.
Seventeen-year-old Judith Holliman escapes the monotony of Sydney Town during the nineteenth century, when her naval captain father lets her accompany him on a voyage, unaware of the wonders and dangers she will soon encounter.
Telma Velasco is hunting for a miracle in a world ravaged by global heating: a leafy seadragon, long believed extinct, has been sighted. But as Telma investigates, she finds hope in unexpected places.
Past, present and future collide in this powerful elegy to a disappearing world – and vision of a more hopeful future.