The Furrows

Cover image of the head and shoulders of a boy emerging from deep blue water, with a blue sky above
Namwali Serpell
Star Rating
Reviewer's Rating
Feb 15, 2023

The line between everyday truth and emotionally generated, alternative truth thins with every page turned in this new literary novel about a twelve-year-old girl, Cassandra, who loses her younger brother to undertow while swimming alone with him on a Delaware beach. But even at the beginning of this book, all is not as it seems. A few chapters in, Cassandra loses her brother again: this time, to a careless driver in their home neighborhood of suburban Baltimore. Rich sensory details make both versions of events feel believable, and as the novel progresses and Cassandra grows older, many more stories emerge. Layered one upon the other, a reader soon begins to wonder which, if any, can be literally true. Is the original beach story, like others that follow, a product of Cassandra's imagination? Or, is it the real-life catalyst that sets her imagination in motion?

Since the body of her brother is never found, many of the scenarios emerging from these pages involve Cassandra meeting him again under a variety of circumstances. The author uses the possibility that he is not in fact dead but, instead, still alive somewhere as a vehicle for exploring social truths: what is likely to befall a boy who finds himself suddenly alone in the world, for example, without the support of his family. Cassandra and her brother Wayne are biracial and, as their parents' marriage ends shortly after his disappearance, navigate different trajectories with race, class, gender and, in Cassandra’s case, complicated family dynamics informing where they encounter opportunities. Paradoxically, they navigate these trajectories on their own, as well as together.

Slower to start but bristling with energy through its second half, this is literary fiction leaning hard into the domain of the psychological thriller. It is not a comforting read, and will most likely satisfy a reader who enjoys intensity in fiction. It will also satisfy a reader who appreciates some ambiguity at the end of a book, since this does not snap shut with a tidy click on its last page. As strange and complicated as everything that precedes it, this ending will require some processing time; it is not easy to digest.

Reviewed by Alice Pi
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