Review: Drift by Caryl Lewis
At the heart of this shimmering marvel of a book sits an unexpected relationship, a brief, intense love affair between highly unusual lovers whose lives drift together like sea-wrack.
Hamza is a Syrian map-maker who escapes the custody of the army on the Welsh coast. He has seemingly been kept there as a consequence of extraordinary rendition, where prisoners are forcibly abducted from one country to another and has consequently been at the not-so-tender mercies of his gaolers, including one, Owens, who is straight from the sadistic wing of novelistic central casting,
A freak landslide, when Hamza is being moved from the camp by lorry, washes him into the sea, from which he is rescued by Nefyn. She is a young woman who has inexplicable powers, such as being able to generate a storm at will, or dive to any depth of sea-water, as she does when rescuing .
The love between the two of them is just as powerful, both of them caught in a moment when they are connected to something bigger than themselves. It’s a feeling an old man called Emrys, who helps restore a boat to help Hamza escape knows full well, as he recalls a similarly seismic moment with his wife:
I felt it with Efa, when we were young, that moment when you can’t love someone more. And I could feel inside me everyone who was alive and everyone who had ever lived who had felt that way.
So what we have in this tale is a modern myth cast with a timely urgency, and a clever inversion of the sadly familiar story of a refugee wanting to arrive in a new country. For Hamza wants to leave Wales, desperately needs to find his family, especially his son, not knowing whether he is alive or dead.
War casts its pall of shadow and gunsmoke over much of the book, ‘smothering everything,’ rubbing out ‘traditions, kindness, joy’ and making ‘people’s lives invisible.’ The clandestine camp where Hamza is being held is preparing drones to be shipped overseas, a soldierless way of waging war from the skies.
Not far away Nefyn tries to heal Hamza’s battered body, cutting his hair (in an incredibly tender ritual) whilst slowly nursing him back to health and sharing with him her trove of beachcombed treasures – ‘the shells, herring-gull skulls, brittle stars and egg cases split and gaping.’
It’s a love story which burns as brightly as a candle, but starts guttering almost as soon as it is lit.
Drift is thus a mix of magical realism and the harsh reality of refugee life with lots to say about borders and boundaries, about the meaning of home and the hollow ache of being away from there.
Hamza helps restore the ramshackle cliff-top cottage where Nefyn lives and manages to make of it a lovers’ den, their physical love-making helping to dispel the demons of the past.
He writes letters home in case he himself never makes it whilst waiting for the Perigean tide which comes only three or four times a year, when the moon leaves its apogee and bows ‘to take a closer look at Earth.’
This is a tide which will fill the little cove near Nefyn’s house to the brim and signal it is time for Hamza’s sadness-inducing departure.
Nefyn is a marvellous creation, a collector of things washed up on the strandline, from ‘constellations of starfish so dense they’d thicken the waters with their numbers’ and ‘bodies, too seal-grey and ashen.’
Indeed the sea is her true element and she seems somewhat stranded on land, where she lives in a clifftop cottage that has seen better days and needs a new roof.
Her brother, Joseph is an almost-twin, born virtually in the same breath of their mother Arianell, and he shares some sort of umbilical with her, often knowing what she is doing, or doing wrong, as when she sends a soldier hunting for Hamza walking into the sea and to his death.
Caryl Lewis, the author of that modern classic Martha, Jac a Sianco has long been considered one of the most accomplished writers in Wales but Drift seems altogether a step up, one is tempted to say a sea-change, given the assuredly confident way in which the quiet waves of her consistently clear and delightful prose carry the reader along.
It’s a sea that is a permanent, brooding character in this novel, just as there is something of the tide about Nefyn, ‘sometimes somehow close, within his grasp, but at other times slipping away.’
And it’s that slipping away that hurts the most when this emotional hand-grenade of a book deftly pulls out the pin, as briny waters claim their own and a lone man sets sail.
Drift by Caryl Lewis is published by Doubleday. It is available from all good bookshops.
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