Books

Review: ‘The Furrows,’ by Namwali Serpell

FICTION: Namwali Serpell's luminous new novel about a missing child bends and blends genre in a searching exploration of grief.

"The Furrows" by Namwali Serpell; Hogarth (288 pages, $27)

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On a Delaware beach vacation, 12-year-old Cassandra Williams (also known as Cee, or C) is swimming with her adored 7-year-old brother, Wayne, when a tide hooks him between the furrows of its waves. Breathing hard, he clasps her back as she strokes to shore; they collapse on the sand, exhausted, with Cee slipping in and out of consciousness. Wayne's body sprawls yards away: Is he still alive? And then he disappears.

This is Namwali Serpell's enthralling setup in her sinuous new novel, "The Furrows," a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. A white man in a windbreaker rouses Cee, guiding her to the beach house where her elders — her parents, a white female painter and a Black Baltimore businessman, and her austere grandmother — demand answers to their questions. The local police investigate for weeks, but no trace of Wayne is found; there's no evidence the man in the windbreaker was anything but a figment of Cee's imagination. She's convinced Wayne is dead while her mother, Charlotte, clings to the hope that he's still alive.

Years pass. Charlotte founds Vigil, a nonprofit devoted to families of missing children, and sends her daughter to a series of trauma therapists. The marriage erodes, and Cee's father abandons them for a fresh start in Savannah. We meet Cee again in her 30s, working for Vigil as she grapples with what, exactly, happened when she was 12. Did Wayne die on that beach? Or did he perish in a car accident just a few blocks from their home? Or did he die in a carousel accident eerily reminiscent of the finale of Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train?"

Details shatter like glass and then reassemble, but with key pieces of the puzzle in place: Wayne critically injured, the figure in the windbreaker, parents tantalizingly just out of sight. Cee keeps running into an attractive Black man — in cafés, on Hollywood studio lots, on a flight — only to realize he's the adult Wayne ... or is he? Why is she attracted to a flirt who might be her brother? This magnetic man, with his "salesman's smile — quick and promiscuous," harbors his own secrets. There's hustle to his game.

A bomb explodes, an earthquake jolts: What is real and what is not? Serpell blurs the delicate line between dreams and our waking lives. "Time doesn't creep like a worm or fly like an arrow anymore," Cee observes. "It erupts. It turns over. Shocks. Revolutions. Cycles ... It's as if something immense or catastrophic is always on the cusp of happening."

"The Furrows" is an English major's dream date: Serpell taps influences across genres, from Virginia Woolf to Dashiell Hammett to Toni Morrison. Above all, the novel's a valentine to cinema, and particularly to the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock; Serpell scatters Easter eggs throughout, allusions to "The Lady Vanishes," "The Birds," and most prominently, "Vertigo," with its feedback loops of eros and death.

She delivers on the daring promise of her prize-winning début, "The Old Drift," while teasing out a jazzier, more intimate register, casting a spell that probes the fluid, disorienting flow of grief.

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A contributing books editor for Oprah Daily, Hamilton Cain also reviews for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. He lives in Brooklyn.

©2022 StarTribune. Visit at startribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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This story was originally published September 28, 2022 4:30 AM.

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