Friday, March 21, 2014

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

A Marker to Measure Drift
This astonishingly good story by Maksik tests our empathy levels. We live beside a homeless woman on a Greek volcanic island in the Mediterranean. Jacqueline her name is, named after Kennedy’s wife. It is hope, I think, that makes her parents name her this, for how can they know what she will become, how she will look, how she will act?

But Jacqueline lives up to the dignity of her name, living as she does in an ocean cave, or in parks under old cypress trees, or in abandoned buildings overlooking the sea. We walk with her when she buys almonds, or a peach and a tomato. We ache with her when she sleeps on concrete that gets cold at night, awaking bruised and aching in the morning. She does not think overmuch, but remembers in puffs, like smoke: the voice of her mother curling around her, smelling strongly of gin and lime but fading off into the air, leaving her bereft with lingering memories.
Nostalgia, her father said, is from the Greek. Nostros, to return home. Algos, pain.
Nostalgia, her father had once told her at lunch, is homesickness.”
This is the story of Jacqueline, who leaves Liberia during the civil war, who escapes her life but not her memories of that life. There is an almost unbearable tension in this novel, despite the languid, sunny days and lack of action. We recognize something in this lost woman, and in the kindnesses of strangers who see something broken in her that needs tending. We are drawn into this story and we walk the rest of the way on our own volition, much like Jacqueline does, not sure where she is going. It is very powerful writing.

I read this book on the recommendation of Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, who mentioned this title in an interview. In the Acknowledgements to this book is a nod: “To Anthony Marra, partner in writing what we do not know.” He also credits the journalist Tim Hetherington, among others, for his film: Liberia: An Uncivil War and his book Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold. Helene Cooper’s memoir, The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood was also a reference.

Maksik and Marra have done something that is not advised in writing programs: they write about what they do not know, have not experienced. That both brilliantly succeeded in this puts paid to that advice, with the caveat that the skills required here are extraordinary. Maksik wrote his story in the voice of a young black woman from an African country torn with strife. And he reminds us, just as Sonali Deraniyagala does in her eviscerating memoir Wave, that the way to rediscover ourselves after loss is to remember, not to forget.

It makes me hopeful, this work. The painful, jagged, soul-destroying story of Liberia at war, in the hands of Maksik, reminds us of what is possible when there are people like him holding up mirrors.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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