Two words occupy the central focus of Cassandra Williams’ existence: “Where’s Wayne?” While seeking the answer to this question, readers of The Furrows: An Elegy, Namwali Serpell’s mesmerizing and endlessly thought-provoking second novel, should keep the book’s opening lines in mind: “I don’t want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt.”
Narrator Cassandra, or Cee, describes how her 7-year-old brother, Wayne, drowned in her care while at the beach when she was 12. His body was never recovered. As an adult looking back on the event, Cee admits that her initial account of the tragedy “must have been incoherent, inconsistent, perhaps self-contradictory.” That statement becomes an understatement as the novel progresses.
True to the subtitle, this elegy laments not only Wayne’s death but also the end of Cee’s life as she knew it, and ultimately the dissolution of her family. Cee’s mother, who remains convinced that Wayne is alive despite Cee’s insistence that he is dead, starts a nonprofit for missing children called Vigil. Eventually, Cee’s father moves away to start a new family.
As Cee speaks with different therapists, the details of her story begin to vary: Wayne was hit by a car; no, he fell off a carousel. “I’ve been trained my whole life to tell stories to strangers,” Cee reveals, describing how she rearranges her “abacus beads of memories.” She believes she encounters an adult Wayne more than once, and she even has a sizzling affair with a mysterious man who calls himself Wayne Williams. Despite the story’s blurred but precisely chiseled layers of reality, The Furrows remains sharply focused, even when, midway through, this new Wayne suddenly takes over as narrator.
Serpell’s award-winning debut novel, The Old Drift (2019), was a genre-defying epic about three generations of Zambian families, and her purposely disconcerting second novel will reinforce readers’ appreciation of her daring experimentation and keen talent. Serpell, who was born in Zambia and raised in a Baltimore suburb, is a Harvard professor whose book of essays, Stranger Faces, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Having lost an older sister when she was a teenager, she writes convincingly about undulating waves of grief, with intriguing nods to such literary forebears as Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston and Edgar Allan Poe.
True to her opening lines, Serpell lets readers know exactly how Cee feels as she mourns, as grief “tugs [her] back into the scooped water, the furrows, those relentless grooves. This is the incomplete, repeated shape of it: sail into the brim of life, sink back into the cave of death, again and again.” Turbulent, poetic and haunting, The Furrows is a stellar achievement.