Cassandra Williams is twelve, and her little brother Wayne is seven. One day, when they're alone together, an accident happens and Wayne is lost forever. Or so it seems. Though his body is never recovered, their mother, unable to give up hope, launches an organization dedicated to missing children. From the author of The Old Drift.
... batters against the fixities of language like a moth at a windowpane ... Serpell writes in rhizomes—extended subterranean stems that send up shoots at unpredictable intervals ... The novel’s engine is epistemic as well as emotional, Serpell being one of those novelists who have metabolized the quirks and the canniness of literary theory ... though the novel’s story lines turn and twist, the precision of Serpell’s language remains under exquisite control ... a novel that embraces fretting and fondling alike ... Serpell reminds us on every page that nothing is less reliable than language—that every story is necessarily a betrayal...The result is a novel that reclaims and refashions the genre of the elegy, charging it with as much eros as pathos. Furrows are the tracks we make and the tracks we cover up, and the shifting ground of Serpell’s novel denies every certainty save that the furrows are where we all live.
... a success on the terms it set out for itself. But it is a further testament to Serpell’s abilities and alacrity as an artist that, this time, I was completely in the thrall of the thing she made. The bombast of The Old Drift has been replaced with intimacy, intense emotionality and specificity, but the ambition, the acuity of the intelligence, remains ... The solidity of these grounding facts is key to the book’s success. Serpell’s dexterity not only inside of sentences but inside the world, delivering just enough immutable truth to guide the reader along the wobbly tightrope, gives her that much more freedom to move balletically through different registers of feeling, space and time ... Serpell’s engagement with grief grows in its layering as Wayne slips trickily into the first person previously occupied by Cassandra ... As the voice shifts, the reader has to continually recalibrate her expectations, continually reinvest in and reconsider all these different Waynes, these different types of loss...This can be destabilizing and uncomfortable, but then so can grief; so can trying to situate all your conflicting histories and experiences into a single self. It is also stunningly intimate, always crystalline at the level of the individual sentences, which remain brisk, clipped, all image and solid, immediately inhabitable metaphor ... Serpell is clear when she needs to be, opaque only when it matches how Cassandra or Wayne feels ... seems to stand on the shoulders of Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison. Above all, Serpell is working with a confidence in and commitment to her project and to the story form. She understands what it is to always have hold of the reader. She does not pander or explain. Instead, the genius is in the book’s bones, its DNA. There is a sort of palimpsest of thinking, reading: The ideas have been churning in the writer for years, but the agony of that work is nowhere to be found. Instead, Serpell gives exactly what she tells us at the outset, a stunningly acute depiction of how the endless layers of both grief and absence, the impossibly slippery act of trying to be a person, feel.
Serpell’s premise is a magnificent snare; you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better opening chapter this year ... far more intimate, a novel of skin pressed to skin ... 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 ... 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 ... shows how lucrative white guilt and trauma can be. And how easily it can slide into something darker ... Serpell is a terrific destabiliser, even at the level of the sentence ... 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.