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Luminous tale follows Liberian refugee

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This impressive literary novel begins at night. Jacqueline, the protagonist, a young African woman, is alone, although she's surrounded by tourists vacationing in a Greek village.

She is also hungry, although gyro stands and cafés abound. She sleeps on a mattress made of cardboard, and rests her head on a pillow of sand.

During the day, she pretends to be a student on vacation, and massages the dirty feet of tourists with olive oil to earn enough Euros for food and water.

Set in the immediate aftermath of Charles Taylor's fall from power in mid-2000s Liberia, American Alexander Maksik's luminous A Marker to Measure Drift follows a single Liberian refugee as she wanders across a sun-soaked Greek island, struggling to meet both her body's needs and her memory's insistent demands on her consciousness.

Drift is Maksik's second novel. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Maksik gained international attention after 2011's You Deserve Nothing, a Camus-esque novel of love and scandal set in Paris.

Maksik is clearly no stranger to travel, but although beach-readers might be drawn to the radiant blue Aegean depicted on the cover, Drift is the opposite of a casual summer read.

This is not entirely due to the novel's subject matter. Maksik is both deft and lyrical, a master of tense -- his shifts from past to present and back again are nearly invisible, so appropriate do they feel -- and a sensualist, and it is impossible to read Drift with less than total attention.

Most of the action of the novel derives from Jacqueline's day-to-day pursuit of basic needs -- shelter, water and, most pressingly, food. Occasionally her hunger is satiated, and these moments approach the spiritual in their focus: "She put a forkful of the eggs onto the toast and then Jacqueline began to eat. The immediate pleasure. The feeling of warm food in her mouth, the flavour of the eggs, the overwhelming taste of salt, the faint burn of pepper. Everything else had been annihilated."

In one sense Jacqueline is entirely alone, and Maksik's brilliance is evident in his ability to keep the novel's stripped-down cast and plot so riveting.

But in another, perhaps realer sense, Jacqueline's psyche is populated with persistent visitors -- the voice of her mother by turns guiding, berating and soothing her; shadows of her cheerful sister eternally painting her toenails; and the caressing hands of her lost lover.

Memory, in A Marker to Measure Drift, is both a gift and a curse: "She began to understand that to live, one must be able to live with memory because memory was the constant. Even for her, even in such a precarious life... still, memory was the constant."

There are many kinds of grief, many shades of loss. Ultimately, Drift explores a particularly dark palette of trauma, the kind that -- in the hands of a lesser writer -- could easily diminish other types of suffering.

But it is a sign of Drift's power that Jacqueline's experience of loss only brings her closer, step by step, to the reader's own; and if the novel's conclusion doesn't offer garden-variety closure, it does satisfy more than one form of hunger.

 

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2013 A1

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Updated on Saturday, August 17, 2013 at 10:12 PM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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