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THE FURROWS by Namwali Serpell Kirkus Star


An Elegy

by Namwali Serpell

Pub Date: Sept. 27th, 2022
ISBN: 978-0-593-44891-5
Publisher: Hogarth

A woman reckons with her brother’s loss in ways that blur reality and memory.

Serpell’s brilliant second novel—following The Old Drift (2019)—is initially narrated by Cassandra Williams, who recalls being 12 and trying to save her 7-year-old brother, Wayne, from drowning off the shore of a Delaware beach. Did Wayne die after she hauled him to the beach and then blacked out, or did he disappear? Her recollection is fuzzy, as is her entire identity. As the narrative progresses, Cassandra’s mind moves forward, as she works for the missing children foundation her mother founded, and back, as she recalls the trauma that consumed her parents and herself. But more engrossingly, her mind also moves sideways, reprocessing and rewriting the moment in various ways. (Perhaps Wayne was struck by a car instead?) The second half of the novel is dedicated to the question of Wayne’s possible survival, and the storytelling is engrossing on the plot level, featuring terrorist attacks, homelessness, identity theft, racial code-switching (Cassandra's mother is White and her father, Black), seduction—all of which Serpell is expert at capturing. But each drama she describes also speaks to the trauma Cassandra suffers, which makes the novel engrossing on a psychological level as well. It opens questions of how we define ourselves after loss, how broken families find closure, and the multiple painful emotions that spring out of the process. “I don’t want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt,” Cassandra says in the novel’s first line, and repeatedly after, and Serpell means it. Rather than telling the story straight, the elliptical narrative keeps revisiting the wounds that a tragedy won’t stop delivering. If The Old Drift was an epic effort to outdo Marquez and Rushdie, this slippery yet admirably controlled novel aspires to outdo Toni Morrison, and it earns the comparison. It’s deeply worthy of rereading and debate.

Stylistically refreshing and emotionally intense, cementing Serpell’s place among the best writers going.