The Furrows by Namwali Serpell review

The Old Drift, Namwali Serpell’s 2019 debut novel, is great in every way, and follows more than a century in the lives of three families in Zambia, the author’s birthplace. On more than 560 pages, the book demands and deserves a lot of commitment from even the quickest reader. “Imagine the equation, or imagine the graph of the Archimedean spiral,” writes Serpell, a Harvard professor of English, in the novel’s concluding paragraph. “This is the twist that unrolls the day, that turns the twists that the seasons obey, and the cycle of years and decades.” The novel proceeds in a similar fashion, with lives deliberately twisting forward and around one another.

For Cassandra Williams, the haunted young woman at the center of Serpell’s dynamic second novel, The Furrows, life moves naturally forward, but with a turbulence that confounds the past. “Time no longer crawls like a worm and flies like an arrow,” she regrets. “It breaks out. It turns around. shocks. revolutions. Cycles.”

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It’s been like this since Cassandra, aka Cee or C, was 12 and witnessed the death of her brother. “I don’t want to tell you what happened,” Cassandra insists throughout the novel. “I want to tell you how it felt.” In her first story, 7-year-old Wayne drowned on a Delaware beach where the Williams family of Baltimore were vacationing. As Cassandra tried to bring the boy ashore, she felt “something inside him” invade her body until all life left his. She woke up on the sand, coughing up water, her arms hung with seaweed. She saw – or thinks she saw – her brother disappearing into the ocean.

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Cassandra has told the story “a thousand, a million times,” to quote one of her favorite phrases. She often changes the nature of Wayne’s death. Once he was hit by a car while the children were going to school. Another time he suffered a freak accident on a carousel. Cassandra always ends the story with roughly the same words: “I felt him dying. He was dead.” And always there was no body to support her. The boy was just gone, “like a light out”.

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Wayne’s absence became “the drain that everything tended towards” in the Williams home. Cassandra’s father, a black engineering professor, accepted that his son was lost forever. Her mother, a white painter, started Vigil, a national foundation that tries to locate missing children. Cassandra’s paternal grandmother, meanwhile, suspected the girl of wrongdoing. “Where did you take the boy?” she asked them.

So what happened to Wayne? As Serpell clarifies, that is the wrong question. Of all the mysteries surrounding Wayne’s disappearance and probable death, what interests the novel most is the enigma of grief: what is happening to us – where is it happening? we go – when someone we love dies? And how do we make it back?

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When Cassandra was a teenager, a therapist told her that she suffered from melancholy — “bad grief” — and that the only way out was to accept her brother’s death. “Death is literally unacceptable, unreasonable, unimaginable,” she replied. “The notion of death would presuppose a consciousness that death itself would negate.”

Grief can seem unreasonable, too, and The Furrows captures its brain-bending, time-altering power. Serpell, who grew up in a multiracial family in Baltimore, said the novel was partially inspired by her sister’s death from a drug overdose more than 20 years ago, when the author was 18 and Chisha was 22. Much of the book feels painfully, tragically accurate. Cassandra describes “the crisis” of awakening from a dream of a living Wayne. She notes how death can divide a family, “just like a missing tooth creates gaps between the others.” Even the numbness she feels when telling another person about her brother’s death cuts deep.

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Halfway through this 266-page novel, the narrative switches from Cassandra’s perspective to that of the man lying next to her in a hotel room. He has a nightmare of drowning, is from Baltimore, and stole the name of Cassandra’s brother, whom he thinks he knew at home as a teenager. As with the mystery surrounding young Wayne’s disappearance, who this man really is – if he really is – remains unanswered. The resolution doesn’t matter. The lack of it is.

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“The best kind of story tells you she reveals the unsolvable riddle at the end,” writes Serpell in The Old Drift. Her new novel is such a story. Its maelstrom of ambiguity and enigma adds up not to more bewildering confusion but to a stark reminder that the only sane answer to grief is: “life Live life.”

However, an answer is not necessarily an answer. Cassandra realizes that no matter which way time moves, she is only “here to watch, to hear, to feel, to record its happenings and ruptures, its growth and its decay, its sinister turning”.

Jake Cline is a writer and editor based in Miami.

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