The Furrows by Namwali Serpell

At first, The Furrows presents its readers with a labyrinthine yet hypotonic narrative about trauma, grief, and guilt. Cassandra, our central character, now an adult, recalls the death of her seven-year-old brother, Wayne when she was twelve. Then, this accident is presented to us again, except this time the circumstances are different. Cassandra tells different versions of his death, and while we cannot tell which one is closer to the truth, she is always somehow to blame. The trauma of his death, and her role in it, have clear ramifications on her adult self. She may not articulate her pain and guilt but the numbness and dissociative episodes she experiences, both as a teen and as an adult, speak volumes. As an adult in fact she says Wayne everywhere, and we are never sure whether the people in question are actually Wayne-look-alikes or merely figments of her imagination. In this way, the author renders the recursive and opaque nature of grief, which does not always manifest itself in tears and i-miss-yous. Interspersed within this very intimate yet enigmatic tale of loss and pain, are incisive observations on belonging and reconciliation. Namwali Serpell’s commentary on race in contemporary America brought to mind the work of Danzy Senna, as they are both unafraid of interrogating uncomfortable questions and realities related to race, racism, and colorism.

What lessened my appreciation of this novel was the role of a Wayne-look-alike. He is presented at first as someone who knows something about Cassandra’s history and her family. That he pursues her intentionally and omits telling her that he knows who she is…so many red flags. I seriously and genuinely thought that he was being presented as a potential threat to Cassandra who is so consumed by grief and guilt as to leave her guard down. minor spoilers: The way he describes and talks about her is incredibly gross and sexist. The guy basically sounds like Joe Goldberg from You ( he stalks her ffs! And, steals from her! He has sex with her and doesn’t tell her his true identity/motivations for pursuing her). Wtf. And yet…the story ultimately paints him and his actions in a good light? Because Cassandra’s mum calls the cops on him (a shitty and dangerous thing to do given that he is not white). But why then did the story go out of its way to paint him as this really creepy and manipulative person? Who decides to take advantage of a vulnerable woman? Daje! Their dynamic was incredibly off-putting and made me feel very queasy. The guy needed a restraining order and therapy.
The connection between him and Cassandra’s family also seemed kind of random and detract attention from the actual subject of the story (the trauma caused by Wayne’s death). Such a pity because I found the first few chapters to be really ingenious and enigmatic. I found the author’s approach to depicting grief to be both inventive and unflinching, and I liked the surreal and dreamlike quality permeating Cassandra’s recollections of Wayne’s accident and her childhood. The author blurs the line between what happened and what might have happened, in a way that creates tension and propels the narrative forward. Yet, as much as I liked the unreliable nature of her narrative, the supposedly romantic plot that eventually takes the novel’s centre stage, well that was several levels of yikes & oh-god-please-no.
If this book is on your radar I recommend you check out some more positive reviews out as ymmv.

My rating: ★ ★ ½

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