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‘The Furrows’ captures the disorienting nature of grief

The Old Drift,” Namwali Serpell’s big-in-every-way 2019 debut novel, covers more than a century in the lives of three families in Zambia, the author’s birthplace. At more than 560 pages, the book demands, and earns, a significant commitment from even the speediest reader. “Imagine the equation, or picture the graph, of the Archimedean spiral,” Serpell, a Harvard English professor, writes in the novel’s closing paragraph. “This is the turning that unrolls the day, that turns the turns that the seasons obey, and the cycle of years, and the decades.” The novel progresses in a similar fashion, with lives deliberately twisting forward and around one another.

For Cassandra Williams, the haunted young woman at the center of Serpell’s dynamic second novel, “The Furrows,” life moves forward, of course, but with a turbulence that upsets the past. “Time doesn’t creep like a worm or fly like an arrow anymore,” she laments. “It erupts. It turns over. Shocks. Revolutions. Cycles.”

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It’s been much that way since Cassandra, also known as Cee or C, was 12 years old and witnessed her brother’s death. “I don’t want to tell you what happened,” Cassandra insists throughout the novel. “I want to tell you how it felt.” In her first telling, 7-year-old Wayne drowned off a Delaware beach, where the Williams family was vacationing from Baltimore. As Cassandra attempted to bring the boy to shore, she felt “something inside him” move into her body until all the life left his. She awoke on the sand, coughing up water, her arms strung with seaweed. She saw — or thinks she saw — her brother disappear into the ocean.

Cassandra has told the story “a thousand, a million” times, to quote another of her go-to phrases. Often, she changes the manner of Wayne’s death. One time, he was hit by a car while the children were walking to school. Another time, he suffered a freak accident on a carousel. Always, Cassandra ends the story with roughly the same words: “I felt him die. He was dead.” And always, no corpse existed to back her up. The boy was simply gone, “like a light switched off.”

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Wayne’s absence became “the drain toward which everything ran” in the Williams home. Cassandra’s father, a Black engineering professor, accepted that his son was forever lost. Her mother, a White painter, formed Vigil, a national foundation that attempts to locate missing children. Cassandra’s paternal grandmother, meanwhile, suspected the girl of wrongdoing. “Where’d you put that boy?” she asked her.

So what happened to Wayne? As Serpell makes clear, that is the wrong question to ask. For all the mysteries that spin out from Wayne’s disappearance and probable death, the novel is most interested in the riddle of grief: What happens to us — where do we go — when someone we love dies? And how do we make it back?

When Cassandra was a teenager, a therapist told her she was experiencing melancholia — “bad mourning” — and the only way out of it was to accept her brother’s death. “Death is quite literally unacceptable, unreasonable, unimaginable,” she responded. “Imagining death would presuppose a consciousness that death itself would negate.”

Grief, too, can seem unreasonable, and “The Furrows” captures its brain-scrambling, time-altering power. Serpell, who grew up in a multiracial family in Baltimore, has said that the novel was partly inspired by the death of her sister from a drug overdose more than 20 years ago, when the author was 18 and Chisha was 22. Much of the book feels painfully, tragically accurate. Cassandra describes “the crisis” of waking from a dream of a living Wayne. She notes how death can divide a family “the way a missing tooth grows gaps between the others.” Even the numbness she experiences when telling yet another person about her brother’s death cuts deep.

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Halfway through this 266-page novel, the narration shifts from Cassandra’s perspective to that of the man lying beside her in a hotel room. He’s having a nightmare about drowning, hails from Baltimore and has stolen the name of Cassandra’s brother, whom he believes he knew as a teenager back home. As with the mystery of young Wayne’s disappearance, the question of who this man really is — if he really is — goes unanswered. Resolution is not the point. The lack of it is.

“The best kind of tale tells you you in the end, unveils the unsolvable riddle,” Serpell writes in “The Old Drift.” Her new novel is that type of story. Its ambiguities and enigmas add up to not more eddying confusions but to a stark reminder that the only reasonable response to grief is “life life life.”

A response isn’t necessarily an answer, though. Cassandra becomes aware that no matter which way time moves, she is only “here to watch and hear and sense it, to record its events and ruptures, its growing and its rotting, its dismal spin.”

Jake Cline is a writer and editor in Miami.

The Furrows

By Namwali Serpell

Hogarth. 266 pp. $27

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