The Furrows 
by Namwali Serpell.
Hogarth, 270 pp., £16.99, August 2022, 978 1 78109 084 8
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NamwaliSerpells highly accomplished, highly deceptive novel The Furrows starts with the trauma of childhood grief. Its subtitle – ‘An Elegy’ – invokes the literary genre that most strongly addresses a single emotion. This theme is inhabited and then abruptly undermined. The initial drama, of the 12-year-old narrator unable to save her younger brother, Wayne, from drowning, drives the book forward for a fair number of pages before this master narrative is driven onto the rocks. Realism is holed below the waterline, though passengers and crew carry on for quite a while as if nothing has happened.

Serpell has chosen a magnificent epigraph from Proust, about the false immortality that clings to those whose deaths are recent, so that their absence seems circumstantial – as if they’ve gone travelling abroad. Only later does the fact of non-existence sink in. So grand a citation can act like a gobstopper in the mouth of a book, threatening to interfere with its breathing, but here the resonance is appropriate and the book’s passageways remain unblocked. For the narrator, Cee (or C), Wayne’s death by drowning is a fact, since she was there when it happened, but for their mother, Charlotte, it is only a hypothesis, and one she rejects. Wayne’s body somehow disappeared from the beach, and she clings to the notion that this means he somehow survived. Not exactly that he is travelling, but that he is still out there somewhere, his status as missing no more than provisional.

There are other gaps and anomalies in the scene of drowning. The sea is described in terms of ‘furrows’ and ‘grooves’, words that don’t suggest movement or a liquid medium. As she swam with him towards the shore C could feel his body soften, and something from inside him entered her in little waves, represented by the onomatopoeic and italicised ‘ssth, ssth, ssth’. Before his body disappeared (pulled back into the sea, she believed), she noticed that it was ‘bent, obscenely bent’, though there was no obvious explanation for this. She was driven home by a sympathetic passer-by who didn’t wait for her parents to return. The only thing that suggests the man even existed is the blue windbreaker he must have wrapped round her shoulders, though she doesn’t remember him doing it.

C is sure that she and Wayne weren’t taking unauthorised risks: ‘This was allowed. This was our whole summer.’ The effect is of one unspoken question – ‘How could you let your brother drown?’ – blocking access to another: ‘How could you mistake your 12-year-old daughter for a lifeguard?’ There is no outright accusation of neglect, but C already knows that Wayne was favoured over her, at least by Grandma Lu, her father’s mother, and she doesn’t need to be blamed outright to feel punished.

Richard Beard’s extraordinary memoir of 2017, The Day That Went Missing, has the same starting point, a brother drowning, apparently within reach of a sibling unable to help. Richard was eleven in 1978, Nicky nine. They were both in the water, separated by a little headland from the rest of the family (their parents and two other brothers), when they found they were out of their depth. Richard managed to reach the shore, shouting to Nick that he should swim to land and not try to touch bottom, but Nick’s head disappeared and didn’t come up again.

The Beard family shut down individually and as a group. By his own reckoning, Richard didn’t say his dead brother’s name for the next forty years. The contortions of amnesia were extreme: until he started to reconstruct the events of that summer, Beard hadn’t remembered that after the funeral the family resumed their holiday in the rented property in Cornwall to which Nick had never returned. The rent had been paid for the whole month – why waste money? If the idea was to demonstrate that life goes on, the lesson came at a cost.

Loss takes C’s family differently, not towards forgetting but towards remembering of incompatible kinds. Her father accepts that his son is dead, but her mother turns grief into action (with strong admixtures of denial and bargaining). She sets herself goals and projects, organising a campaign to locate Wayne and other missing children. The collapse of their marriage isn’t an immediate consequence of the loss, but is already on the cards.

There are Gothic hints in the aftermath of the death, in two slightly different registers, first the apparition of Wayne as a boy made of sand – ‘he grinned and his cheeks crumbled’ – beside C as she takes a bath. Later, back in the family home in suburban Baltimore, Charlotte keeps finding drawings by Wayne on the walls, or hidden behind pieces of furniture, until it becomes obvious that she is doing them herself. Serpell’s aesthetic preference is to break a pattern almost before she has established it, to load, aim and cock a symbol but not pull the trigger. ‘C’, for instance, stands for Cassandra, and her account of Wayne’s death is certainly treated with suspicion, although any correspondence with Greek myth remains fragile and uncertain. The nexus between disaster, truth-telling and not being believed, though hinted at strongly, doesn’t manifest itself.

The book is divided into two roughly equal parts, and near the halfway mark C is replaced as the narrator. But the two bisections, the formal and the narrative, aren’t made to coincide – or to put it more accurately, are made not to coincide. The crossover point between C and ‘Wayne’, a man in search of someone he once knew whom he identifies with the missing boy, is masked by the interposition of a dream involving death and water, floating trees that turn out to be corpses: ‘So many I can barely see the sky above through them. The one trapped around my leg is still there, spinning slowly around my knee. Another glances off my back. I turn and I’m looking in its dead eyes. I shout, my mouth opening wide, wider, like it’s hinged.’

Not one reader in a thousand would doubt that this is a dream of C’s, but it isn’t. It’s Wayne2’s – in other words, the pivot point in the storytelling has been surreptitiously advanced, though it takes a little while for the shifted perspective to declare itself. The presumption of continuity (without which the activity of reading would be an arduous enterprise) is likely to make the reading eye slide over ‘I’m in my hotel bed,’ before coming up against more definite evidence of change: ‘I can feel myself getting hard, my dick changing its weight.’ Disorientation requires a second reading of the dream sequence, and then its last word, ‘hinged’, comes to seem downright mischievous. This is indeed where the book hinges, but the effect is of a cupboard door equipped with misaligned fitments, to make it scrape and squeak a little as it opens. Wayne2 has stalked C, not with sexual or romantic intentions to start with, but in order to track down the person he blames for ruining his life. (There seems to be no better way of referring to this person or force than Wayne3.)

Wayne2 served time in confinement as both juvenile and adult, and grew up largely on the San Francisco streets with a self-taught sage called Mo as a teacher, but he can certainly turn a sentence:

Mo was always muttering apocalyptic shit from the start, so it wasn’t obvious right away when it started coming more often and at a higher pitch. Especially because the words were the same – admonition, blazing fire, rent asunder – all of them ganked from that beat-up Koran he carried everywhere, its cover faded from his fingers and the sun’s.

Hard for any writer to resist the magic of those last two marks on paper, the unassuming apostrophe s that equips a star with fingers. Different registers of language coalesce and separate out in the course of Wayne2’s narrative. It’s as if he has internalised the code-switching that allows speakers (usually from minorities) to own and disown identities, in contexts of solidarity or threat. High society licenses adventures in imagery – watching someone stub out a cigarette on a railing outside a fancy social occasion, he compares the sparks to ‘ant fireworks’.

The Bay Area is a vivid presence in Wayne2’s narrative, more so than the Delaware shore and suburban Baltimore that is the setting of C’s part of the book. Living rough seems to sharpen not just the eyes (as survival demands) but the energy of the prose:

It’ll feel like you’re in the suburbs, everything covered with rainbow flags and PAZ signs and TREES ARE BROTHERS scratched in the sidewalk. Flyers like fossils on the telephone poles, bumper stickers with jokey politics: MIND YOUR OWN UTERUS! You’ll stroll along, feeling protected by Berkeley’s good intentions, and maybe you’re a little likelier to ask for change, but then you cross a line and you blink and you’re in the hood. That’s how close ‘good’ streets and ‘bad’ are, how neighbourly here and there.

Memories of childhood surface in a clotted vernacular. ‘I really only started buckin when I was thirteen-fourteen. You know how it is, more bark than bite. But shit was real hectic where I came up. Mostly I was just tryna make people do exactly what I said – that way I always knew what was comin.’ This voice might seem to belong to Wayne2’s id rather than his childhood self, except that the destructive principle is about to make its appearance, in the form of Wayne3, a classmate who mimics and subtly bullies him (they’re both called Will at this point, but let’s keep things simple). Occasionally there’s a more neutral register, though it seems stranded between two styles of eloquence, the one refined and the other stark. What it most resembles is a defendant trying to speak the language of the court: ‘I always had that chaos in me. I will acknowledge that. I showed signs even back when I was fresh in the foster system. Social workers said it, doctors said it. ADHD, all of that.’

The bullying mimicry becomes existential when actual impersonation is involved.

And then, this nigga starts dressin like me. Wearin my labels. Same belt, same kicks, same puffer coat. Dude was all up on my jock. Walkin like me, tryna talk like me – but with that ugly-ass wheeze in his throat. You ever have somebody play that echo game on you? It’s like – I can’t even describe it. It gave me the heebies. It was like he wasn’t just tryna be me. He was tryna do me better than me.

Eventually Wayne2 has to acknowledge a hostility that is somehow primal: ‘I see him. And it’s like – I know you. Like, I been knowin you, for a long-long time, from before I was even born.’ This hypothesis is confirmed when Wayne3 frames him: he is filmed on the school’s security cameras stamping on someone’s head, but somehow he’s wearing Wayne2’s face. This is enough to get Wayne2 sent to a juvenile detention centre. Then when he is about to be released, Wayne3 somehow plants drugs among his things, guaranteeing his transfer to an adult jail. Wayne3 is more like an entity or a principle than an actual person, to judge by his shape-shifting powers and his supernatural access to Wayne2’s life.

The theme of the demonic double in American literature goes back at least as far as Poe, whether to be enjoyed for the frisson it generates or interpreted as an image of a personality unable to accept its own destructiveness. In The Furrows the theme is hardly developed, its purpose being only to supply Wayne2 with a motive to track down Wayne3 (assumed by him to be Wayne1) and establish a connection with C. Grief is now the family business: Charlotte has established an organisation concerned with missing children called Vigil – for which C works – with the help of an inheritance from her mother.

Genre elements are not seen at their best when tentatively or too subtly deployed. The Gothic tale offers strangeness in a form that has become familiar over the centuries, but Serpell is after something more disruptive. In her acknowledgments she thanks her publicist for ‘taking on the task of selling my strangeness’, running the risk of seeming smug by suggesting that strangeness is an end in itself rather than the by-product of certain literary choices. The defining or deforming strangeness of the novel is that Wayne’s death or disappearance is recounted in three different versions. It’s not that the details vary – most of them are common to all three scenarios, such as the blue windbreaker and the ‘ssth, ssth, ssth’ at the moment of death accompanying some sort of soul transfer. The defensive formula ‘This was allowed’ recurs. Even the word ‘splummeshing’, perhaps a portmanteau of ‘plummeting’ and ‘splashing’, appears more than once. It’s the essentials that are different. In the second version Wayne is knocked down by a car (with the man in the windbreaker at the wheel, though it’s an accident), in the third he is crushed by a fairground ride. Either of these incidents fits better with the obscene bending of the body described in the first primal scene.

Readers are comfortable with the notion of the unreliable narrator – although it’s not clear what a reliable one would be. A narrator without blind spots and a certain degree of myopia would be like Superman in his guise as Clark Kent, only pretending to need glasses. This narrator is in a different category – does she even qualify as a narrator if she isn’t present at the story she is telling? There is no acknowledgment in C’s part of the book that the trauma of Wayne’s death has been recorded in triplicate, each incompatible draft claiming an absolute loss.

The pattern seems to be that a death holds until C imagines she meets a living Wayne, at which point everything disintegrates (‘the world dilates and the window beside us shatters’). Then a new death is narrated, as if the characters were pins being reset in a bowling alley or players of a video game. Even this pattern is soon broken – after the third version of the death, it isn’t an impossible Wayne1 who comes into C’s life but Wayne2, his arrival marked by a lesser apocalypse, some disaster or mass disturbance at an airport, never explained (‘the ground before me ripples and I slip’). The body count keeps climbing, but they take no interest in the details. Shaken rather than seriously hurt, they use their brief time in hospital to consolidate an acquaintance made on the plane.

The instability​ of so many elements in The Furrows has one surprising benefit. C’s father is Black, her mother white, and though race isn’t in the foreground of the story it isn’t a subject that can be relegated to the background either. She refers to ‘my tango with race’, and it’s a dance that never ends. The pain of racialised experience emerges jaggedly from the fabric of narrated events. Even before Wayne dies C knows the basis of her paternal grandmother’s preference for him. He is ‘more sand than mud’, lighter-skinned than his father. Charlotte, a painter whose subjects are always Black women, ‘dignified pietàs and breastfeeding Marys with blunt dun skin, their noses always too aquiline, their lips too pillowy’, is engaged in a lifelong masquerade. Listening to Nina Simone in her grief, she reveals ‘the particularities of her whiteness’. It’s as if she can only express her feelings through Black art. Near the end of the book, her actions in marrying a Black man and painting so many stoic, statuesque Black mothers are assessed as ‘an innocent kind of slumming’, but that charitable verdict seems a little hollow. Growing up, C understands that ‘you’re supposed to be pretty if you’re mixed race.’ It’s a test she passes, but even when she has learned that her legs make up for her chest and her ‘ambiguous shade of brown is desirable’ the damage doesn’t go away.

There is no shortage within the book of images for the multiplications and substitutions it contains. One of C’s therapists encourages her to practise ‘lifespan integration’, an exercise in which the patient turns trauma into story. C, now eighteen, must reconstruct the terrible moment, then project herself into it to rescue her 12-year-old self.

As usual, I submitted to this therapy while concealing my contempt for it. Pausing time? Two selves? And at the very end, I had to hug my younger self, let her ‘melt’ into me, which felt both unholy and redundant. What a metaphor! What a story! I did it, of course. I conjured as instructed. But each time I entered the past in my mind, I made the trauma into a drama. I burst up from the ground like an earthquake. I rained down from the sky above. I ran in and whisked off an astonished Cee, carrying her under my arm.

‘Everything is twofold with you,’ C thinks tenderly of Wayne2, but in her own case threefold is more like it. When an attractive man makes an off-colour joke, she imagines splitting into three to play out possible responses. ‘I conjure two alternative lives for myself. In one, his comment offends me enough that I tell him to fuck off. In the other, I flirt back until we achieve a delicious camaraderie. Instead, in this life, I smile stiffly and turn away.’

If there is a metaphysical basis for the violations of continuity in the book the explanation comes by courtesy of Wayne2’s unlikely mentor, Mo. ‘Time starts to fold under its own weight like honey’ – that’s the sort of thing he would say. Or ‘time is a hinge.’ There is a cartoon logic to his ideas: ‘Tom chasing Jerry, Coyote chasing Road Runner. But the rules of the world would be just a little off-kilter. Rules like gravity and speed and pain.’ Wayne2 tries to explain Mo’s philosophy to C: ‘One time, he told me, Time’s got grooves in it. A moment is a needle and time can skip like a record … He said things like, Time is like the ground, and when something big happens, it’s an earthquake, and when it’s little, it’s ripples, like those rows on a farm.’ Right away C says: ‘Furrows.’

Never mind the book’s characters – how many times can its readers have the rug pulled from under them by the universe where they are spending their time and still want to stand up again? Less than twenty pages from the end C says something to Wayne2 that strikes him as ‘the strangest thing’. What she says is: ‘I don’t wanna tell you what happened. I wanna tell you how it felt.’ But this can hardly strike the reader as strange, since those are the first words of the book (with ‘want to’ instead of ‘wanna’) and have been repeated more than once since then. They’re even printed on the back of the book. In her acknowledgments Serpell thanks one person ‘for seeing that The Furrows is an elegy’. If the genre label arrived so late in the process of writing then its applicability must be in doubt. There’s more than enough skipping of the needle in the book, more than enough surprise. The question is whether there’s enough of anything else.

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