Book review: The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed

(cover image courtesy ECW Press)

As the COVID pandemic sweeps across the world again and again and again, it’s all too easy to feel like this is the end of the world.

It isn’t, of course, well not yet anyway (and we can only hope that science and the dedication of an expansive cohort of talented, dedicated people keep it that way), but in the midst of good health diminished, plans and lives disrupted, and the world as we know it thrown into disarray, it’s all too easy to feel that hope has abandoned us, sealing off in a space where possibility and promise are relics of a bygone, more optimistic age.

Premee Mohamed’s wondrously immersive new novella, The Annual Migration of Clouds, which is one of the most beautifully evocative of titles to grace any publication this year, turns that sense of hopelessness on its head, and is all the more remarkable for doing so when the world has ended for real.

The world, at least, that everyone once knew, a place where flying across the planet was possible, where astronauts could go to Mars and where, more importantly on a day-to-day basis, the lights came on, the water flowed and you could walk into a supermarket and grab all the food you needed.

In the decades-later world of The Annual Migration of Clouds, these things and so many others are gone to dust, leaving a world where the seasons dedicated what is eaten and when, where everything has to be made for scratch and pulled from tragically abundant landfill, and office buildings and university campuses are the only usable accommodation left on offer.

“Now I tell myself firmly, in my best teacher voice: I’m not abandoning her. It just looks like that. People will help her till I come back. Say that again, think it again, so it’s real: Till I come back. I swear, I swear I will. I will learn what can be learned to help us, and I will bring it back.” (P. 31)

This is the age and time inhabited by Reid Graham, a young woman who, like so many others, has inherited a world made poor by climate change, humanity’s inability to realise it spend centuries sowing the seeds of its own destruction, and a parasitic disease known as the Cad, a mind-altering fungi that eventually kills those it inhabits, bringing great pain and misery as it does so.

In the face of so much loss, community is everything, something Reid knows but doesn’t fully appreciate until an unprecedented offer comes her way, one which will change her life in ways she cannot even begin to fathom.

What she does know is that some parts of civilisation as it once still exist in what was once Canada, housed under domes that were originally set to provide refuge for the rich and well-connected in a rapidly-decaying world.

So little visited are these fabled places by people like Reid and her community that they have assumed an aura of myth and legend, such that while some people encourage Reid to grab this unique opportunity with both hands, others caution her against placing stock in things unseen and barely known.

But this is where The Annual Migration of Clouds shows its true and miraculously moving hand.

Premee Mohamed (image courtesy official author site)

In the middle of an age when horror and hopelessness seem one poor season away, and the dark times are within the living memory of the older members of the community who witnessed the mass of humanity blink from existence as society broke down in spectacularly destructive ways, The Annual Migration of Clouds dares to suggest, much like novels like Station Eleven before it, that hoping for a fruitful and fulfilling future may not be the preserve of fools, after all.

In fact, as Reid and her best friend since childhood, Henryk, contemplate opportunities that will pull them apart and change their lives beyond recognition, hope emerges as a powerfully transformative force that has the power to move mountains no one had even dared to go near.

Mohamed, who builds a world which is vividly alive and vivaciously rendered for all its struggle and graft, is careful not to sugarcoat hope, which is of the robust kind that can stare down the darkest of times and emerge resplendently triumphant, even in the face of naysayers and the uncertain.

She is also careful to place Reid and Henryk’s brightly alive possible new future, one made all the more perilous in its fulfilment by the fact that Reid carries the Cad parasite which could end her world before it has even begun (though she has some innovative ideas on how it operates in the body which could change everything), in the context of the rich, if sometimes oppressive, community in which both young people live.

“‘… But what are we supposed to do? Sometimes you can’t … you can’t build something new while you’re standing in the spot where the old one is. You have to move. Build it from somewhere else.'” (P. 140)

Alive with fully-formed and richly realised characters, and a narrative that pivots impressively between harsh present realities and glittering future possibilities, The Annual Migration of Clouds is a love song to the power of personal hope and community strength.

It understands implicitly that we owe a debt of gratitude to those who have got us to the point where we can bring the future vividly alive in ways others can only dream of, and while this debt is far more palpable and bricks-and-mortar in a time decades hence, its message is still movingly relevant today where individualism is threatening to tear away the foundations of community which have made society what it is today.

We need each other, and while that might sound like a trite line from a poorly-made animated feature film, it is true in a way that Mohamed brings to glorious life as Reid balances seizing the day while remembering she cannot simply leave her community behind.

A moving blend of apocalyptic darkness and human resilience, the kind that imagines and believes in a future that the present says should not be idly dreamed of, The Annual Migration of Clouds is a stunningly good piece of storytelling that accomplishes more in its 155-page, all-too-short length than many novels manage in hundreds of pages, bringing forth a world which is both broken and healing and which rests both on the community that sustains it and on the hopefulness of people like Reid who, despite a host of obstacles, may yet be the people who bring the world, if not back to what it was, than to something greater than it is right now.

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