“The power of grief to derange the mind has in fact been exhaustively noted,” Joan Didion wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking, before proceeding with her own account of madness following the death of her husband. This phenomenon is so often observed because it’s timeless, as universal as love. Grief is a natural subject for art, or maybe some art is simply grief made manifest.
Grief is the subject of Namwali Serpell’s second novel, The Furrows. (Its subtitle bills it as “an elegy.”) Cassandra narrates the book’s first half, describing how her little brother Wayne—“a nutty brown, a scrawny creature, a good kid”—died at the age of seven. The two are unattended on a Delaware beach, though the girl, called Cee, is only twelve years old: “He was joyful and swimming and then he wasn’t.”
Cee dives after her brother: “I held his knuckles in my hand. I turned and swam us to shore. He dragged me back. Halfway to the beach, his small heavy head began to beat against my shoulder in an unreasonable way.” It’s a child’s perspective and a child’s language; unreasonable, she says, is a word her father might have used.
Cee blacks out. A passing stranger wraps her in his windbreaker and drives her home. There are concerned adults and police officers. Then the girl is alone in a hot bath. She hallucinates a boy made of sand:
He grinned and his cheeks crumbled. I wanted to fling my hand at his head. I wanted to make that grin bigger, emptier. I wanted to grab the blow-dryer and smash it into him and turn him into clumps on the floor. I wanted it to be over and done.
But the grief is just beginning.
The novel’s first words are: “I don’t want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt.” This is repeated a few chapters on, when Cee says that her brother died after being struck by a car: “I knelt beside him so fast I found bruises on my knees later. His lips and eyes were open but unspeaking, unseeing.” The details are familiar: the driver wears a windbreaker; Wayne’s head rolls about in an “unreasonable” way; a blow-dryer is on the floor.
A few chapters later, Wayne dies once more, this time thrown from a carousel. This incident makes the least sense to both Cee and the reader (“I couldn’t fathom how he could have fallen…”), but the intent is not to establish what happened:
The shape of him grew starker with each slower spin, as if my vision were holding him tighter. Once, twice, he came clear, then clearer. And then he was gone. Just gone, like a light switched off.
The novel’s language is direct. I once heard, who knows where, that when explaining death to a child, it’s best to be frank about its permanence, not to bother with metaphor. The Furrows is speaking to adult readers, though, and cannot resist metaphor to illuminate what death is. Wayne dies three times, to help us understand how it feels when a life’s light is switched off. We’re beside Cee, in the dark, trying to adjust our eyes, to see.
Wayne’s death by drowning evokes a primal fear of the ocean: “Those whirring sheets of water, the foam along their edges sharpening like teeth. On either side of you, the furrows chewing, cleaving deeper. They ate you up.” His death by hit-and-run got under my skin (my kids strolling to school along major Brooklyn thoroughfares): “I heard the impact, the thud of the car ramming into my brother, the sound of my brother as he hit the road.” But the third time The Furrows dispatches young Wayne, on the merry-go-round, is surreal. The effect is not visceral but intellectual: What can you think of but Joni Mitchell’s painted ponies going up and down? It’s the first time I’ve ever considered the menace in the chorus of “The Circle Game”: “We’re captive on the carousel of time.”
There are people who can’t abide stories of children in peril. I have an indelible memory of a mother I once knew, so shaken by an account of child abuse that she ripped the page from the newspaper and tore it to shreds. I’m not that sort of reader, but I don’t think The Furrows would trouble such a soul. The repetition of the book’s central event doesn’t make the death comical or farcical (because Serpell has the restraint to make the boy die only three times). But it does make it seem fictional. Wayne is less a person than a device. The novel uses him less as a character than as the catalyst for Cee’s grief.
To communicate the madness of that grief, Serpell undermines the foundation of her own book. This gambit—a story undone by another version of the story—reminded me of Lorrie Moore’s novel Anagrams (1986), in which the hero is either a torch singer or an art historian or a poet. It also made me think of the concept of multiple, coexistent realities, a common trope in the superhero movies my children love.
Novels must take liberties with time—Hans Castorp’s seven years at the sanitorium, Mrs. Dalloway’s single day in London. Narrative requires momentum, and whether this moves forward or backward or coils back upon itself is a matter of strategy. But the reader can be forgiven for a bias toward a story that begins, proceeds, concludes. That’s how life works, isn’t it, the days marching forward, impartial? We’re captive on the carousel of time.
After Wayne’s drowning, we glimpse adult Cee at a bistro, where another patron chats her up: “It’s always a surprise, isn’t it? The possibility of sex. A breach of the borders of the body.” Then a real surprise: “I look into his eyes and the light there twists. And I know. It’s Wayne.” The restaurant window shatters. The air fills with sirens. There are people in the street, fleeing “a riot or a bomb or…” The ellipsis is the author’s. The novel finds the nature of this disruption immaterial.
“Grief has no distance,” Didion writes in her memoir. “Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.” Serpell conjures literal waves to carry away Wayne and waves of feeling that can consume Cee at any moment. The fiction obliterates the “dailiness of life,” and whether the interruption is bombs or riots is less important than how such moments make Cee, and the reader, feel: lost, perplexed, shocked.
After Wayne’s death by car, adult Cee is touring a movie studio with a small group of sightseers when another violent paroxysm occasions yet another encounter with a male stranger. There’s something fun about the first half of The Furrows, hardly the word I’d expect to use given the book’s subject. Needing to knock us off our feet, Serpell deploys pyrotechnics. Needing to discomfit, she mixes fraternal affection with sexual desire: “His mouth is so close, I can smell his breath: almond, berry, a darker earthy scent.”
The aim is to approximate feeling, but the truth is that big emotion (bereavement, passion, fury) can grow boring. By the book’s midpoint, we’ve heard the same tale three times. We understand, or think we do. Maybe we’d as soon keep this all at a distance. That’s the pleasure of experiencing it on the page, as opposed to in reality. We can close the book, safe in our delusion that we will never know grief in our own lives.
We all find ways to cope. Charlotte, Cee’s mother, is a painter, and she doodles on the walls and pretends these are Wayne’s work. Cee is subject to “a thorough telling-off” by her father when she reports this:
He went through as many synonyms as needed—stories, tales, fibs, nonsense, foolishness—to let all the time in the world pass us by, to let my mother finish her drawing and crawl out from under the desk undisturbed.
It’s somehow apt that Cee is scolded for the imagined misdeeds of her dead brother. That’s how it feels to be a sibling; you court parental favor, you’re blessed or you’re blamed, you’re always tallying injustices.
Because Wayne’s body was swept away, Charlotte believes him not dead but missing. She starts an organization called Vigil for the parents of such kids—more productive than forging graffiti, if about as logical. Vigil becomes almost another child, as well as the family business. The Furrows is mostly interested in the bond between siblings, a dynamic that persists into death, even if there’s no word like “widow” applicable to a surviving sibling.
Even the question of race—Cee’s father is black, her mother white—is refracted through the sibling relationship. Colorism seems to have something to do with Wayne’s status as their grandmother Lu’s favorite: “Wayne apparently looked exactly like our father had as a child, just lighter. ‘More sand than mud,’ Grandma Lu would smirk.” This same matriarch—with her “hotcomb smooth” coiffure—brings us to the fraught subject of grooming and respectability (good hair, in the cultural shorthand). Grandma Lu might be “reconciled” to having a white daughter-in-law but is displeased by the unkempt locks of her biracial granddaughter.
Cee’s parents send her to a therapist. There’s no breakdown; it’s simply a reasonable response to the sort of trauma she has experienced: “Two years after my little brother died, but left us no body to confirm the fact and mourn, my mother told me I was going to the doctor’s.” Each version of Cee sees one: Dr. Rothman, Dr. Jacinta, Dr. Weil. The first of these clinicians fixates on her biracial identity, feels that Cee has failed to reckon with it: “My mother thought Dr. Rothman was a bad man. She didn’t like that he brought up race so much. ‘Why does it matter?’” This question becomes more salient in the book’s second half.
After Wayne’s final death, Cee meets a third shade of the man her brother never got to be. They’re thrust together during another unexplained catastrophe: “He lifts and spins me and I’m in his arms…. It’s him. It’s Wayne. This is our reunion.” The two are sent to the hospital, then they are in a motel. Readers untroubled by the literal explosions may be unsettled by the incest taboo: “Our hips part briefly and I catch a glimpse of his erection, the blessed clarity of its intention.” But Wayne is dead, readers think. Wayne is a child. Wayne is her brother! “I’m not going to come, I stop moving my hips, I see him, I see Wayne, I see him, I cover his face with a panicked hand, and when he starts to come, No, I say. No.”
This man, a trickster, narrates the second half of The Furrows: “You can call me Will. That aint my real name. But close enough.” Let’s call him Wayne, because Cee does. This Wayne, reared in the foster system, recalls his childhood—as a boy, he met a kid with the same name and a similar face. There was a case of mistaken identity, and the narrator Wayne was wrongfully incarcerated. He survived juvie and a life on the streets and the fringes of respectability. An adult now, he means to find the Wayne who caused his life to be undone.
Because Vigil has propagated the lie that Cee’s brother is not dead but missing, the narrator thinks Cee’s brother is the kid he once knew. To find this Wayne, the narrator must insinuate himself into the life of Cee’s family. It’s Vertigo—a double, a traumatic past, a seduction; it even happens in San Francisco. The plot is disorienting, just as in Hitchcock’s film.
Though Cee is no longer recounting the tale, the reader’s affections are with her—we’ve had half a book to warm to her and her dead brother. (He may be mostly a literary device, but what kind of monster is unmoved by a dead child?) We understand this uncanny narrator Wayne as a delusion of Cee’s, a manifestation of the magical thinking that Didion wrote about. Of course you’d see your dead brother in the faces of strangers. Of course you’d believe that he’d come back to you, however convoluted the plot that returned him to life.
But this Wayne is not a bad guy, just a man broken by rotten luck. He’s resigned to petty criminality: “Aint nobody hirin an ex-con. Nah, man. Truth is, there aint no life but The Life once you done a nickel.” There’s a revelatory moment when he impulsively robs a few BART passengers, sticking them up with no weapon but his hand: “It’s like a kid’s joke, cops and robbers.” He’s a boy himself.
If the book’s meditative first half is a requiem for a single child, its antic second half becomes an elegy for America’s black citizens. A conversation between Wayne and Cee is rendered thus, the speaker unclear or not salient:
They do it to all of us, there are a million ways to die, sometimes I hate being black, I love being black, they always look at us funny when we say that, like it’s shocking that we’d choose to be black, it’s not like it’s really a choice, yeah, but it’s not even about that, we do have a lot of privilege, have you seen the videos? I stopped watching them, they just make me feel so terrible, so sad, you know sometimes they make me feel ashamed.
Some novels comprise distinct parts to make a coherent whole—Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry (2018) or Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies (2015) each offer several vantages on a central relationship. The Furrows doesn’t work quite like this, and it doesn’t entirely coalesce as a novel. The story of Wayne’s death recurs in order to establish how it feels for Cee to grieve. It doesn’t follow the characters through their reconciliation with tragedy, perhaps believing such a thing is not possible. The explosions Serpell conjures are happening to Cee, but the abrupt shift in narrative perspective is happening to the reader. Too much of our attention may need to go toward finding our bearings, trying to make sense of Wayne’s American odyssey. There’s no resolution in the offing—this in service of how it feels, not what, precisely, happened—no matter how much readers want there to be.
The common thread is elegy, as the title page asserts. The novel seems at first to negotiate a private grief, but it’s also tackling something more vast. And I felt implicated in the American project of racism, since I could muster heartbreak over the boy (Trayvon Martin comes to mind; you can insert dozens of names here) but not over the man (I thought of Tyre Nichols, but again there’s a list from which we might choose). The Furrows elicited an emotional response that dulled over time into a distant ache, dissipated into confusion rather than clarity. Perhaps that’s fitting.
At the book’s end, Cee relates to her lover something her father told her: “He said, he said, ‘Cassandra, for us, death is everywhere. Didn’t you know that?’ Like I didn’t know that.” Given this, there’s something triumphant in the novel’s ending, which seems to me almost happy. The final image is of Cee and Wayne as lovers. The world falls away, blurs into something horrific:
Hell blares into our ears with a blast of grainy wind…. Beasts gyre to the surface of the sea…. A thicker darkness rises, a tall shadow that grows steadily until it’s as big as a house, then a minaret, a skyscraper.
But these two face it together, close as siblings.