Slow River

by Nicola Griffith

Cover image

Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: August 1995
Printing: August 1996
ISBN: 0-345-39537-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 343

Buy at Powell's Books

This story opens, suitably, at the side of a river, with the first person protagonist contemplating the river as connecting fabric of civilization but also somehow outside. The narrator has no identity but will hopefully be acquiring one soon, pausing at the river before stepping back into life, reborn. From there, we jump back three years as she's dumped in an alley, naked and badly injured, brutally torn from her identity and reluctant to reclaim it for deeper and more complex reasons. We learn her name, Lore, after she is rescued by a woman who lives on edge, who steals and ransoms identities, who is part of a far different world. And then we meet Lore at the age of five, learning that water isn't safe, but more than that learning to never take anything for granted. A lesson that, sadly, she doesn't truly learn until much later.

Slow River is told in three narrative strands with the same protagonist but separated in her life by time. The current story is told in the first person, the immediate background in tight third-person past tense, and Lore's childhood in a looser third-person present. Lore's childhood was a story told to her, her life with Spanner was a story pushed at her, and her life afterwards is the story she takes control of. It's that sort of book, full of parallels, symbolism, sideways approaches to questions of identity, and use of literary devices as cues. A quarter of the way through, I wasn't sure it was going to come together. Halfway through I was caught up in the plot but not sure about the characters. And then the threads came together, the mildly unsurprising plot climax became mere background to a beautiful character development climax, and I realized I'd fallen in love with the book.

I want to dispense with one misconception immediately. It's easy to get the impression from some synopses and reviews that the point of Slow River is a cyberpunk world in which one's identity implant is their life and loss of it turns one into a non-person. I put off reading this book for far too long, despite loving Ammonite, because I'd read that story before and wasn't that interested. This isn't what Slow River is about at all. Lore has never lost some widget of technology she couldn't regain. She chooses to hide from her former identity and her incredibly powerful family for other, far more tangled reasons, reasons that the story slowly peels back in layers. The psychological thickets underlying Lore's denial of her identity are the heart of a fascinating study of economic class, family secrets, friendship and loyalty, self-esteem, and self-created identity. This is not a cyberpunk identity thriller.

The science, quite to the contrary, is water reclamation. There is some passing reference to identity hacking, ransoming, and con games, but those bits of technology are indistinct supports for character and plot. Environmental engineering is the foregrounded science, and Lore's competence, dedication, and understanding makes it far from either boring or typically political. The politics here are about class, not environmentalism, and even there the multinational corporation is more ambiguous than evil. Seen through Lore's eyes, the biological process of cleaning and recycling water takes on a complex, difficult beauty that had me looking forward to scenes of tromping about sewage treatment plants.

One of the reasons why this succeeds so well is that Griffith has an admirable grasp of emotional timing. Lore is a hypercompetent environmental engineer, and if she were dropped into that role right at the start, the story may trip over typical SF cliches. Griffith doesn't emphasize that competence until much later in the story, though, after the reader has seen Lore struggle with every other part of her life and has seen enough of her childhood background to realize she's more damaged with a monofocus than typically hypercompetent. Because of that, the competence adds emotional depth and gives the reader a long-desired chance to root wholeheartedly for the hero, rather than robbing the story of believability.

Lore, as she observes herself, is a creature who has fallen from the tops of the jungle trees down into the lower layers of growth. Each layer of the jungle is a different ecosystem; each has its own rules, its own predators, its own logic. Jungle creatures who fall out of their natural layer are completely unequipped for the world in which they find themselves, and often die miserable deaths. But the river that cuts through the center of the jungle also cuts through all of the layers, leaving open space where one can, if one chooses, see them all at once for what they are. It's both a compelling metaphor for class and a perfect guide to Lore's emotional journey, and when Lore finds her emotional riverbank, the resonances echo back through the story and transform and improve the entire novel.

Griffith is going on the list of authors whose works I will buy on sight. It's a true shame there are so few of them. Slow River doesn't grab you with a tightly paced plot. Give it time and attention and savor Griffith's beautiful descriptions. It more than rewards the time spent at the end.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-06-21

Last spun 2022-02-06 from thread modified 2013-01-04