Review: Namwali Serpell’s intricate second novel, ‘The Furrows’

On the shelf

‘The Furrows’

By Namwali Serpell
Hogarth: 288 pages, $27

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I’ve long been an admirer of Namwali Serpell’s criticism, but it’s worth noting that I struggled with her debut novel, The Old Drift, at the beginning. The mastery and brilliance were evident. It was ambitious, polyphonic, cross-generational, and has (rightly) been compared to both Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie. Reading this book there was no doubt about his skill and complexity, about the fact that Serpell’s brain was extraordinary. I attributed my ambivalence to taste.

Flavor is so interesting only in criticism. If I’ve done my job well, you rarely know whether I liked a book or not. Given the conditions that The Old Drift set for itself, it was absolutely an accomplishment. Had I been commissioned to write about it, I would have focused on all of the ways it has succeeded in its specific terms. I bring in taste just to tell you that her second novel, The Furrows, out this week, is also a success on the terms that it has set for itself. But it’s a further testament to Serpell’s skill and zeal as an artist that this time I was totally hooked on what she was doing. The bombast of The Old Drift has been replaced by intimacy, intense emotionality and specificity, but the ambition, the sharpness of intelligence, remains.

The first lines of “The Furrows”: “I don’t want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt.” Like all great opening lines, they serve as directions for reading the entire book. The chapters unfold under a miasma of uncertainty. Cassandra’s brother Wayne disappears in the first chapter while the siblings are swimming in the sea. She’s 12 and he’s 7. There’s a white man in a blue windbreaker who might be there to help. Wayne’s body is never found.

The book moves forward in time and then back again. Maybe drowning wasn’t Wayne’s cause of death. The next chapter presents his disappearance as an accident on the way to school; the next one reintroduces it again. The man in the blue windbreaker reappears. In each, the corpse is never found. Maybe Wayne didn’t die, just disappeared. Perhaps the man sitting across from an adult Kassandra in a café is her brother, perhaps that explosion that crashed through the café window as they touched is just how she sees her sadness again, touches her, felt. “It’s like swimming,” Cassandra thinks. “You pet and kick to get to the very edge of the wave. You feel the momentum: further, further, further. But something always pulls you back into the scooped water, the furrows, these inexorable grooves.”

"the furrows" by Namwali Serpell

The fact of the world of the novel is that Cassandra’s parents are getting divorced. Her black father is marrying someone else. Her white mother uses her inheritance to create a foundation, Vigil, to search for missing children and support their parents. After all, Cassandra works for her. The solidity of these basic facts is the key to the book’s success. Serpell’s dexterity not only within sentences but also within the world, providing just enough unchanging truth to guide the reader on a shaky tightrope, gives her much more freedom to balletically move through different registers of emotion, space and time .

In the second half, the perspective changes – as does the voice. We’re with Wayne, probably not Cassandra’s brother, but someone else looking for him who looks like him. Cassandra meets him when they are involved in an accident together. Although all previous encounters with possible Waynes have ended quickly and often violently, this one ends in seduction, intimacy, and desire (although its origins are also rooted in violence). And here’s something: Like her brother, this new Wayne was in something deadly dangerous with Cassandra, but now that they’ve both survived it, they can come together on the other side: “It kind of makes sense, a quid pro quo: he was waiting for me; I’ll walk him home… Plus-plus, who knows.”

Serpell’s engagement with grief grows in its layering as Wayne tricky slips into the first persona previously occupied by Cassandra. Although Part II starts a few pages later, it seems important that Wayne’s “I” is taken over after only a small section break, important that the tone gradually changes to a completely different voice.

Until, many pages later, we dig into another, different nuance from Wayne: “You can call me Will. That’s not my real name. But close enough. Also, my real name has brought me a whole lot of trouble in this life. I’m not that man now anyway.” Here the book makes clear that it is as interested in the slipperiness of containing and defining an individual self as it is in how that self is informed by loss. The detachment intensifies. As the voice changes, the reader has to constantly recalibrate her expectations, constantly reinvest, and reconsider all of these different ways, these different types of losses.

It can be destabilizing and uncomfortable, but it can also be sadness; The same goes for trying to fit all of your conflicting stories and experiences into a single self. It’s also startlingly intimate, always crystalline at the level of the individual sentences, which remain brash, concise, all-picture and solid, immediately livable metaphor: “Wayne loved school. He was fawn, a lanky kid, the heat of growth still burning off all his fat… it was spring, warm and light, the air full of flowers and furry seeds.”

Serpell is clear when she needs to be, opaque only when it suits Cassandra or Wayne. “Time began to slip forward,” Cassandra thinks, “fast, faster, then at breakneck speed, propelling me through the night until my eyelids opened and there was a halted dawn devoid of any color.”

If The Old Drift got Serpell talking to Rushdie and García Márquez, The Furrows seems to be standing on the shoulders of Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison. Above all, Serpell works with confidence and commitment to her project and the shape of the story. She always knows how to keep the reader under control. She doesn’t give in and doesn’t explain anything. Instead, the genius is in the bones of the book, its DNA. There is a kind of palimpsest of thinking, of reading: the ideas have been buzzing around the writer for years, but the agony of this work is nowhere to be found. Instead, Serpell replays exactly what she tells us at the beginning, an amazingly sharp performance, like the endless layers of grief and absence, the impossibly slippery act of trying to be a person, feeling.

Strong is the critic and author of the forthcoming novel Flight. Review: Namwali Serpell’s intricate second novel, ‘The Furrows’

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