Monday, October 26, 2009

Slow River

I've spent a number of weeks pondering what to say about this novel. The problem is not so much whether or not this is a good book, which it surely is, but along the lines of why it is a good book. Such lines of thinking have sparked entire new academic disciplines, so I'm not sure why I felt I had to resolve it to any sort of satisfaction before I put virtual pen to virtual paper. But I feel that part of the process of critiquing is to establish a baseline for why I feel a certain way about a subject; not only that, but these are interesting questions to me, running parallel to my ponderings about genre differences, because surely "good read" and "bad read" are just another way to classify books.

Nicola Griffith very adeptly handles three storylines in Slow River, each dealing with three distinct phases of the life of young Lorelei van der Oest's (who goes by the name of Lore). Each storyline is slowly intertwined with the other two, patiently providing a relatively full life history for Lore. The main plotline concerns Lore's attempt to create a new life for herself, escaping from we know not what, told in the first person. The second plotline describes her life immediately after she escapes from a kidnapping attempt, in which she accidentally kills one of her abductors, or so she thinks. The final plotline is a retelling of her life story from her childhood up to the point where she escapes from her kidnapping. These last two threads are told in third person, immediately implying that Lore wants to separate herself from the events she is telling. And almost immediately, the events she describes lead to related questions, the answers to which the reader must patiently await: who is Lore that she should be kidnapped? What kind of life is she escaping when she takes up a new identity and a job at a sewage plant?

The engrossing story is the strength of this novel; Griffith has a fascinating story to tell, made that much more interesting by the way it is revealed piecemeal. Each of the three threads of deal with Lore's escape from something: a wretched family life, a kidnapping, and codependence on a woman who is not stable emotionally. But Griffith, through Lore, points out what we often forget when we consider escape—you must escape to something; it is not merely enough to get away, because the place one gets to may not be any better, and in fact it might be worse, than where you escape from. Lore never explicitly says this, but Slow River reflects her implicit acceptance of this truth and the related maturity that comes with it. Part of what Lore escapes from is her lack of control of her own life, which is feels appropriate when we find out that Lore is a relatively young woman in her mid-20s.

So on one level, the reader ends up with smaller mysteries to solve for each thread, while Griffith also craftily ties all three threads together in ways that go beyond just being the repetition of her life's story. As Lore escapes her trials, she is better able to observe the events of her life, reflected in the third person narrative, and see the patterns that bring them all together. Part of the joy in Griffith's writing is that the reader probably isn't aware that they can all be tied together until Lore begins to do so, and yet all the hints for where the story ends up are embedded in the simple story-telling. The movement along the different threads feels so very organic and yet when it is done, the reader can only admire the hidden hand of the craftsman who led the novel to such a place. And upon reflection, the reader realizes that each of the story beats is relatively simultaneous for each thread, that there is a relationship between the specific events described in each passage.

Set in what is apparently a generic English city, Slow River is not a wordsmith's dream; such a decision would be disrespectful of the voice that Lore shares with her readers. That voice is simple and straightforward, sometimes painful in its innocence, further tying the reader to the experiences that Lore shares. And while it has also won the Best Novel award from the Nebula committee, it is only tangentially science fiction; the future she imagines is not so distant and a nice extrapolation of technology we have today, but that technology is not what the story is about. Nonetheless, Griffith is blessed with the ability to make the technology she describes feel real, perhaps especially because in the fourteen or so years since its publication, some of the technology she imagines is already being made available. To be honest, part of me wants to dislike the novel for its lack of genre awareness; I wanted it to be more speculative fiction-y, but I realized as I thought about it that a good book is a good book. That Griffith has taken a narrative structure that is rather common in mass media today and nearly perfected it with interesting characters and a tight plot should be sufficient to recommend it.

Griffith also takes a hard honest look at difficult subjects. Lore, in her innocence, makes a powerful lens through which a reader can examine societal failings not only from an outside perspective but also as someone who has led a strangely difficult life. I realize that I am being nearly spoiler-phobic as I write, but there is little I can say about the novel that will not give away important information that should be revealed in Griffith's own time and fashion. And unfortunately, despite its award, Slow River has proven a difficult book to find—it only took me nearly eight years of searching to find a used copy. But ultimately, I feel that it was worth the effort, now that I have been exposed to Griffith's apparently lethargic but terrifically piercing story.

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