Between 1999 and 2003, the small African nation of Liberia was devastated by civil war. Over 100,000 people died. Both the government and the rebels recruited child soldiers. The horrors of the conflict have been well documented; the International Criminal Court eventually convicted then-President Charles Taylor of war crimes. But even if you know what happened, it can be hard to appreciate the depth of the trauma to those involved. Particularly in a continent full of such tales, the atrocities can begin to blur.
Fictional depictions of such wars often do little to correct such impressions—the effort to respect the unspeakability of what happened tends to reduce such tales to litanies of tragedy that feel more like guilt trips than engaging narratives. But Alexander Maksik’s remarkable new novel A Marker to Measure Drift is an exception, conjuring the horror of war almost entirely without describing its events. “I want it to be as authentic as possible both historically and psychologically,” he says, “but the way I approach the book is through character.” In this book, that character is a Liberian refugee named Jacqueline, who wanders, homeless, across the Greek isle of Santorini.
Jacqueline initially appears to be simply a young woman brought low by a vicious civil war and a harrowing escape, but as the novel slowly unspools it becomes clear that the truth is far more complicated and heartbreaking than it first appears. Her worship of her father and rebellion against her mother brought her right into the center of the conflict, and now that it’s over she avoids the relatives and friends who might help her survive. Instead, she struggles to find food and shelter and eke out a living, refusing to ask for help or even admit the true nature of her situation.
These complications render Jacqueline a deeply compelling, if often frustrating, character. Yet Jacqueline’s story is not the one Maksik set out to write. After living in France and traveling around Europe, he was interested in the experience of African immigrants there. The idea of writing a book about one such immigrant came when he was sitting in a café in northern Italy and observed a man walk in with a bicycle and sit down to smoke a cigarette—Maksik returned everyday that week and so did the man. “I knew nothing about his experience but I just found him fascinating,” Maksik says.
Beginning from that encounter, Maksik began to craft a story about a Senegalese man who ended up at a ski resort in the French Alps, but there was a language issue since Senegal is a French-speaking nation (a version of this story was eventually published in Harper’s). As he researched English-speaking countries in Africa, Maksik stumbled upon Liberia, with its troubled history and beginnings as an American colony. Even with the language problem solved, the voice wasn’t quite working—after reading the autobiography of Liberia’s current president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, he decided to experiment with a female perspective. And thus was Jacqueline born.
From there she quickly took on a life of her own. The novel was originally split between her perspective and that of a vacationing French couple, but Maksik found them less interesting and so decided to focus entirely on Jacqueline. “I fell completely in love with this character and would think about her constantly,” he says. “I would go to sleep at night and think about her and wake up in the morning and think about her.”
As much as Jacqueline got into Maksik’s head, he also had to get into hers. The novel is unrelentingly internal, playing out almost entirely in Jacqueline’s mind as she grapples with problems both practical and existential. Memories—of her father’s smile, her sister’s tabby, or the hotel room shared with a lover—come and go without fanfare. “It seems to me that we remember the physical detail that surrounds emotion, and that’s how I’ve always approached writing,” says Maksik.
It’s not just details that haunt Jacqueline’s memory, however. Her lost loved ones appear as well, both connecting her to the past and pushing her to move forward. Jacqueline’s most frequent visitor is her dead mother, who browbeats her daughter for the choices that lead her to the squalor of her current life, but also encourages her to live, to fight. It’s a powerful device, in part because it’s surprisingly subtle. “I wanted that to work in the reader’s mind the same way that it would work in Jacqueline’s mind,” Maksik says. But he leaves it up to others to decide what exactly her mother represents: Is she merely a memory, a manifestation of madness or, as he puts it, “some version of god”?
Despite the novel’s single-minded focus on one woman’s psyche, Maksik hopes the story speaks to larger issues. “I’m interested in writing novels that are in one way or another political,” he says. “I don’t mean political in a present politics sense, but I want [them] to deal with problems that are broader than the immediate world in which I exist.” And Jacqueline’s plight is certainly indicative of larger issues of immigration and homelessness. Maksik is particularly adept at capturing the day-to-day routine of the marginalized. “Once you’ve been fed and once you’ve found shelter and once you’ve found a place to go to the bathroom and wash what do you do?” he says. “You sit. Until you get hungry again.”
But Maksik’s novel is less a call for action than a testament to the human need to communicate. As much as Jacqueline struggles with boredom and uncertainty, it’s her isolation that’s truly devastating. Spending a lot of time alone, Maksik says, “it’s easy to forget that you need to talk to other people.” Jacqueline certainly believes as much, hiding out with the ghosts of her lost loved ones and avoiding anyone who tries to speak with her, but that separation traps her in her own mind. Telling the story becomes the only way to move past it.
Alex Heimbach is a freelance writer in New York. You can find her on Twitter.