"The Furrows: An Elegy" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
In the opening pages of “The Furrows,” Cee Williams, age 12, is watching her 7-year-old brother Wayne, as she usually does, while her parents work from their summer vacation cottage.
Cee and Wayne hike a short way to the isolated beach to swim. Wayne becomes trapped between the waves, in the furrows, after strong winds appear without warning. Cee swims to him and holds him, but she feels him die as she carries him to the shore. Cee briefly collapses. When she manages to stir, she sees the body of her brother being pulled into the ocean.
Cee becomes unconscious again on the beach. A stranger rescues her and leaves her on her cottage porch wrapped in his windbreaker. He disappears. Her parents and her grandmother don’t believe Cee when she tells them that her brother is dead and his body is in the ocean. They are sure he has been kidnapped. Their failure to believe her, and the consequences of their doubt, steer the rest of the page-turning novel.
“The Furrows” offers a perspective of how individuals manage to cope, or not cope, when tragedy befalls them. Cee’s mother copes by spearheading a foundation that raises funds to help family members find their missing children. Cee’s father abandons the family, leaving Cee to live with her mother’s obsession.
Cee’s paternal grandmother’s resentment towards Cee grows. The grandmother has always derided Cee’s whiter skin, which she inherited from her mother. Wayne, dark skinned, resembled her son. The grandmother thinks the wrong child has been taken.
Cee is forced to get counseling, long range help at her mother’s insistence, not to cope with her brother’s death, but to find out why she is lying, as her family continues to believe.
Throughout the rest of Cees’ life, she experiences vivid dreams of Wayne and their times together during his short life. Men who resemble Wayne seem to cross her path everywhere she goes. One seems to save her life in what appears to be a terrorist attack. Another, a man with a secret violent past, becomes her lover.
Terrorist attacks and natural disasters symbolize the destruction of Cee’s family and feed Cee’s own complicated dreams and imaginings. Unsettling societal issues rise to the surface, and failures to address them lead to more tragedies.
The author admits that events in the novel stemmed from incidents in her life. Her own sister died unexpectedly and violently. The word “elegy” in the title reflects the author's desire to connect the novel with her own experiences.
About the Author: Namwali Serpell is a prize-winning author. Her last novel was “The Old Drift.” She is a professor of English at Harvard University.