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A Marker to Measure Drift
By Alexander Maksik
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
In the acknowledgments section of Alexander Maksik's unsettling, stripped-down new novel A Marker to Measure Drift, the first people the author thanks are the makers of two films Liberia: An Uncivil War and Pray the Devil Back to Hell. I haven't seen either movie, but it says something about Mr. Maksik's novel that I read the acknowledgments section after finishing the book, which I don't always do. I suppose I was looking to find some explanation or point of entry into what I had just read.
And the truth is, A Marker to Measure Drift does unfold something like a film. We're introduced to Jacqueline, a young, graceful black woman who is living in a cave on an island in the Aegean Sea. The writing is visual: "In the morning she woke with coarse dark sand blown across her face and piled up against her back in a smooth slope. She gently removed the grains from her lashes and from the corners of her eyes. She rose onto her knees. The sand slid down the back of her neck and caught in the waistband of her skirt." This world is new to Jacqueline. She's lost, alone, and disoriented. She's hungry and thirsty. Her inner monologue mostly consists of conversations with her mother, who isn't there. The line between sane and not sane is a bit blurry, and the question of just how far Jaqueline has tumbled is omnipresent. We get the sense that Jacqueline didn't need to be resourceful in her old life, but now she will learn or die. The spare narrative follows her as she finds food. She watches a family of tourists come to the beach. "Please leave something," she repeats to herself like a mantra. And they do leave her something. She sits in their depressions on the sand, drinks the remains of a water bottle with pieces of garbage floating in it, eats the discarded scraps of a sandwich. In that moment, we can feel Jaqcueline's primal relief. We can feel her pride, pages later, when she earns enough money to buy a gyro by giving massages to tourists on the beach.
Eventually, the narrative is punctuated by shards of memory. The gray cashmere coat her mother sent her for Christmas, the wide green lawns of her English boarding school, "her father's left hand moving across the shining black lacquered top of a grand piano no one could play," "the smell of gin mingling sweetly with her mother's perfume," her pregnant younger sister Saifa, the white teeth of a mysterious bearded man, a "band of lunatic children."
Mr. Maksik uses the simplest of plots, and the sparest methods. We learn that Jacqueline is a refugee from Liberia, and that her father was a Taylor loyalist (as in Charles Taylor, the warlord with the American education who became the country's dictator and rose to international infamy for various crimes against humanity, most notably perhaps the "boy soldiers" that have been dramatized in a number of books and films). "He was an idiot," Jacqueline says of her father when she finally speaks of him, "and a little boy." It soon dawns on the reader that Jacqueline's memories are all trauma--even the happy ones--because they belong to a life that is simply gone, everything in it wiped away by the event that sent her to the beach and cave where we met her. Her personal trauma coincides with Taylor's fall and the end of the Liberian Civil War. And so the the narrative's real movement is toward and away from the moment where her old life came to an end. The resolution will come when Jacqueline gives voice to her traumas and tell us the details of her story.
It all makes for uncomfortable and sometimes gruesome reading, but this is a very effective and contained book. Mr. Maksik has wonderful instincts for delivering just enough insight into Jacqueline's character to keep us turning the pages. He manages to raise the stakes to the highest possible level--her choice is simply to come to terms with her past or die--without blinking. Here is a book where the author doesn't feel the need to dilute the drama with humor, a book where the "big questions" are stripped to their essential core: What is necessary to sustain life? The answers Mr. Maksik leads us to are touching, and the book ends on a hopeful note despite all the blood.
Out of 10: 9