‘The grooves’, by Namwali Serpell

On a Delaware beach vacation, 12-year-old Cassandra Williams (also known as Cee, or C) is swimming with her beloved 7-year-old brother, Wayne, when a tide catches him in the ruts of its waves. Breathing heavily, she hugs his back as she approaches the shore; they collapse on the sand, exhausted, with Cee drifting in and out of consciousness. Wayne’s body lies meters away: is he still alive? And then he disappears.

This is Namwali Serpell’s fascinating setup in his twisting new novel, “The Furrows.” a riddle wrapped in a mystery within an enigma. A white man in a windbreaker wakes Cee and guides her to the beach house where her parents, a white painter and a black businessman from Baltimore, and her austere grandmother, demand answers to her questions. . The local police investigate for weeks, but no trace of Wayne is found; there is no evidence that the man in the windbreaker was anything other than a figment of Cee’s imagination. She is convinced that Wayne is dead, while her mother, Charlotte, clings to the hope that he is still alive.

Years go by. Charlotte founds Vigil, a nonprofit dedicated to families of missing children, and sends her daughter to a series of trauma therapists. The marriage erodes and Cee’s father leaves them to start over in Savannah. We meet Cee again in her 30th, working for Vigil as she deals with what happened exactly when she was 12 years old. Wayne died on that beach? Or did he die in a car accident a few blocks from his house? Or did he die in a carousel accident eerily reminiscent of the ending of Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train”?

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Details shatter like glass and then reassemble, but with the key pieces of the puzzle in place: Wayne badly injured, the figure in the huntress, the parents tantalizingly out of sight. Cee keeps running into an attractive black man, in cafes, on Hollywood studio lots, on a flight, only to realize that he is the grown-up Wayne…or is he? Why is she attracted to a flirt who could be her brother? This magnetic man, with his “quick, promiscuous salesman’s smile,” harbors her own secrets. There’s hustle and bustle in her game.

Explode a bomb, shake an earthquake: What is real and what is not? Serpell blurs the fine line between dreams and our waking lives. “Time no longer crawls like a worm or flies like an arrow,” observes Cee. “It erupts. It spins. It crashes. It spins. It cycles… It’s like something huge or catastrophic is always about to happen.”

“The Furrows” is an English major’s dream date: Serpell draws on influences from every genre, from Virginia Woolf to Dashiell Hammett to Toni Morrison. Above all, the novel is a Valentine’s gift to the cinema, and in particular to the work of Alfred Hitchcock; Serpell scatters Easter eggs everywhere, allusions to “The Vanishing Lady,” “The Birds” and, most of all, “Vertigo,” with its feedback loops of eros and death.

She delivers on the bold promise of her award-winning debut, “The Old Drift,” as she brings out a more intimate, jazzy register, casting a spell that probes the fluid, disorienting flow of pain.

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

the grooves

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By: Namwali Serpel.

Editor: Hogarth, 288 pages, $27.

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