The hand I had dipped in the river was drying. It itched. I rubbed the web between my thumb and forefinger, the scar there. Tomorrow, if all went well, if Ruth would help me one last time, a tadpole-sized implant would be placed under the scar. And I would become someone else. Again. Only this time I hoped it would be permanent. Next time I dipped my hand in the river it would be as someone legitimate, reborn three years after arriving naked and nameless in the city.
Nicola Griffith's Nebula and Lambda Award-winning second novel, Slow River (1995), does a surprising amount in its 300 pages. It's a science fictional lesbian picaresque whodunnit (try saying that five times fast) focused on a young woman's search for identity, told across three different time frames and with a significant portion of its plot set in a water treatment works.
(A pithy introduction to this post was never going to come out of all that, really, even if I have just spent about half an hour in the attempt...).
Lore Van de Oest's story begins in two places - in two times - at once. It begins with her trailing her hand in a river and contemplating a new life to come; it begins, also, three years earlier, amid the blood and terror of a desperate escape from nameless abductors. In both cases she begins alone, stripped - in the earlier instance by force and shame, in the later voluntarily, if not without pain - of a support network that has previously bolstered her, of the people and circumstances that have given her life meaning, and identity. Both threads, told side-by-side and intertwined, progress forwards in time from their starting-points. Thus we follow Lore's stumbling efforts to rebuild her shattered life twice; we can see how she has changed, and how she has not, and above all we can watch her try to find an identity that comes from within, rather than without.
The first time round, Lore - hot-housed heiress to a financial empire built on canny management of next-gen water-treatment technology - is young, naive and sheltered. She grew up on the family's private island, Ratnapida; she wanted for nothing. She is the poor little rich girl thrust into a world she doesn't understand, that - even on the most basic level - she has never had to understand:
She was suddenly aware of the cold tile under her feet, of the cracks she could feel between her toes. It was not yet winter. She wondered what it would be like to be cold involuntarily.
But there are other cracks in her life, ones that she has only just begun to feel. She has been left shell-shocked both by her abduction and by her family's response, or its lack - since, inexplicably, they refused to pay her ransom. The realisation that no-one was going to come for her - and the violence it provoked her to in her effort to escape - haunts Lore, making her even more vulnerable. When a saviour appears, in the form of decidedly amoral programmer Spanner, Lore clutches at her - and quickly becomes dependent on the other woman's tender but capricious protection. Lore needs Spanner to teach her how to get by in an urban environment that is intrinsically hostile to a child of such privilege; and, if she wishes to hide from her family, she needs Spanner's contacts to gain a new legal and economic identity, in the form of a forged implant in her hand to replace her existing one.
But instead of learning how to grow up and survive on her own, Lore (perhaps inevitably) uses Spanner to insulate her: from the world outside, and from the realities of how Spanner funds their life together:
It seemed to Lore on nights like this that she had no other life before right now, right here, every pore open to the wild night's feel, every follicle attuned to changes in the air, every taste bud and nerve cell hot and fluttering. She knew that sometimes Spanner made money from other people's suffering, but she did not have to see that, and she had suffered, too. Everyone suffered.
Spanner - herself somewhat closed-off, emotionally, pathologically averse to sharing anything of her past - also serves Lore as the perfect insulation against her own past, against the cracks in the perfect facade of her family life, and thus against the cracks in her own sense of self.
These cracks, together with the increasingly destructive turn taken by the relationship with Spanner, become apparent and then explicit only gradually; a process which is punctuated and emphasised by a series of flashbacks to Lore's youth, and by her story in the novel's present. The latter is the only strand narrated in the first person, reflecting, of course, Lore's fledgling - and for her unprecedented - independence. (Likewise, the science fictional setting highlights the same theme in its own way; when Lore switches identity implant again, the metaphor is literalised through the novel's world-building.)
Lore rents an apartment by herself and takes a job at a water treatment plant nearby. Water treatment is, of course, the only thing she knows how to do; indeed, she knows how to do it all too well, and she soon realises that all is not as it appears at the plant. But her precarious new life is threatened almost as soon as it has begun. If she reveals what she knows, she risks exposing her past identity to the world, and thus losing the hard-won autonomy that is so central to her new sense of who she is; furthermore, she will have to confront the truth of her family's murkier dealings, and (last but not least) jeopardise a burgeoning relationship, with a woman who is altogether better for her than Spanner. Yet to refuse, to continue hiding, is in some senses to surrender to the image of her created by her family, and latterly by Spanner: self-protection through self-serving.
Reality at Ratnapida would more likely be the family sitting at the table, pretending not to see me, pretending that the kidnap and abuse had never happened, that they had not received, not watched - over and over - the tapes my abductors had made for the net. My reality and theirs were different. Looking back, they always had been.
All these details and developments are rolled out at a pace that mirrors Lore's own journey to self-awareness and maturity. The flashbacks grow more pointed and painful as Lore herself delves deeper into the history of both her family and her own childhood. It is in the half-glimpsed, tragic story of Lore's sister Stella (and Lore's all-too-late understanding of it) where, at least for me, the novel's real emotional impact lies - one flashback scene in particular is staggering, all the more starkly powerful for the fact that our perspective upon it is so partial, coming as it does from the uncomprehending young Lore.
It is a power that is lacking in the 'present' strand, which I never engaged with in quite the same was - but then, the aim of that part is different, and altogether quieter. Similarly, Lore's new relationship never sparks in the way that things do with Spanner; but the new one is more equal, and eventually more real and honest, than the old, however captivating it was. Living life in the present may not have the drama of the past, but there are a host of challenges in learning how to simply live, afterwards.
The complex structure of the novel is both technically clever and thematically integral. The whole thing is woven together such that all these parallel narrative strands complement each other on numerous levels: as an intimate character study of Lore, as a tantatalising puzzle to be pieced together, as an exploration of identity. On the latter count, in particular, there are times when Slow River truly soars - even when Lore is at her lowest, as a flashback at the end returns us to her abduction:
Lore looks inside herself and finds only a vast space. Who is she? Her father would recognize the Lore who goes with him to count fish in the bay, and talk about the silliness of their ancestors. Katerine, on the other hand, knows and cares only for the Project Deputy, the efficient young woman who designs huge systems and suavely courts the Minister for This and the Commissar of That.
But what of the girl who would lie in Anne's arms and swim with Sarah, the child who dreams of monsters and still sometimes gets up in the middle of the night to check the lock on her door? Who will recognize her? No one but herself. She has shared none of these things, told them to no one. She has been so alone.