The Furrows by Namwali Serpell review – bravura investigation of grief

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Jaromir Chalabala/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Jaromir Chalabala/Alamy

It is the curse and indulgence of every era to think of itself as remarkable: as uniquely burdened and momentous. But the case for the present is strong. “It’s as if something immense or catastrophic is always on the cusp of happening …” writes the Zambian-American novelist Namwali Serpell. “We are all heroes of cataclysm now.”

If there’s an emerging theme to the art of these crisis-racked times, it’s time itself: multiverses, parallel lives and wormholes; groundhog days and grandfather paradoxes; time-travellers and their ever-patient wives. From indie films (Everything Everywhere All at Once; Palm Springs), to prestige TV (Russian Doll, Dark), to queer romance novels (see Casey McQuiston’s delightful One Last Stop), creators seem intent on mucking with the space-time continuum. Could there be a better metaphor for our perpetual present than an inescapable cosmic loop? The more inevitable the future seems, the more we dream of one that can be averted – of a past that can be undone.

In Serpell’s new novel The Furrows, time mimics grief – it slurs, skips, loops and folds in on itself. When Cee Williams is 12, her seven-year-old brother, Wayne, dies in her care. She is holding him when he takes his last breath. Something electric passes between the siblings in this dying moment – “his body swept clean of him, mine filled to bursting”. The exchange is so intense that Cee passes out. When she wakes, Wayne’s body is gone. Serpell’s premise is a magnificent snare; you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better opening chapter this year.

Without flesh-and-blood proof, Cee’s mother, Charlotte, refuses to believe (or perhaps to admit) that her son is dead. The media loves an anguished mother, if she is the right sort of mother, and Charlotte is: photogenically bereft, middle-class, white (Wayne and Cee’s father is Black). As Charlotte builds herself a charity empire, Cee is dragged from therapist to therapist. “I’ve been trained my whole life,” she explains, “to tell stories to strangers.”

But Cee’s account of her brother’s accident is slippery. In one version, Wayne drowns in a riptide at a lonely beach; in others, his little body is tossed from a fairground carousel, or hit by a car. Perhaps none of these stories is true, or perhaps they’re all true in some wrenchingly elemental way. “I don’t want to tell you what happened,” Cee pleads, “I want to tell you how it felt.” Is Wayne dying in universe after universe, or just in a cruel loop in Cee’s mind? Does it matter?

Serpell’s prize-winning first novel, The Old Drift, was a rowdy epic – one of those gloriously overstuffed, state-of-the-nation debuts that can be forgiven its narrative sins because it’s so abundantly smart. Tracing the fate of four generations of Zambian women, from colonial settlement through to a drone-surveillance future – via the political surreality of Zambia’s 1960s space programme – The Old Drift was a collision of magical realism, Afrofuturism and postcolonial picaresque.

There are no talking mosquitoes in Serpell’s new book, no high-Dickensian oddballs – The Furrows is far more intimate, a novel of skin pressed to skin. Where The Old Drift sparked comparisons to Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith, The Furrows feels more akin to Hari Kunzru’s White Tears, or Omar El Akkad’s What Strange Paradise: a modern parable, or sociopolitical trauma made flesh. Told once, the story of Wayne’s accident is a tragedy; but told again and again and again it becomes a kind of elegy, a lament for broken Black bodies, and recurrent horrors. “For us, death is everywhere,” Cee’s father warns her. “Of course,” she replies, “but in the end what does knowing that give you?”

In the second half of The Furrows (which is less riveting than the first, but tantalisingly cryptic), Wayne’s absence becomes a kind of shapeshifting presence. Decades after losing her brother, Cee will meet a man who shares his name: a seeming doppelganger, who himself feels haunted by some trailing shadow. Cee’s attraction to him is as ferocious as it is taboo – “it feels like some deep, atavistic deja vu” – and it forces her to confront the lie she is being groomed to uphold, as she prepares to take on a larger role in her mother’s charity. “We’ve climbed up a couple of rungs on the class ladder, Charlotte and I, propped on Wayne’s ghostly back,” Cee admits.

How lucrative white guilt and trauma can be, The Furrows shows. And how easily it can slide into something darker

The Furrows shows how lucrative white guilt and trauma can be. And how easily it can slide into something darker. Charlotte moves through the world like a bruised queen. “She looks regal and wounded,” Serpell writes, “grand and tender. But she wears a crown of entitlement.”

Serpell is a terrific destabiliser, even at the level of the sentence. A room echoes with the “curbed bedlam” of sitcom laughter; commuters ignore each other in the “slotted indifference” of a train carriage. There are no tidy moral lessons at the end of her dissonant and time-contorting fable – no bones to bury, no truth to pin, no mysteries solved – only the inescapable rhythms of loss. “It’s like swimming,” she writes. “You stroke and kick to get to the outermost edge of the wave. You feel the momentum: go on go on go on. But always, something tugs you back into the scooped water, the furrows, those relentless grooves.”

• The Furrows by Namwali Serpell is published by Hogarth (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.