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A Marker To Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

Book Review: A Marker To Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

A Marker To Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik (Alfred A. Knopf; 240 pages; $24.95).

marker.jpg  Jacqueline, a Liberian refugee, ekes out the barest of existences on an island in the Aegean Sea in Alexander Maksik’s stunningly visceral second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift.  “Only go down the path.  Only find water.  Find food.  Find shelter,” Maksik writes.  These basic necessities occupy Jacqueline’s time and lead us to wonder why a young woman as cultured, gentle, and intelligent as Jacqueline (who was named after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) ends up sleeping in a cave.

Maksik’s protagonist is a person who is completely stripped down.  She cares only about surviving her new environment, a place in which she knows not a soul.  Dependent upon the kindness of strangers and the voices of her parents, she lives day to day, sometimes even hour by hour.   “Forward,” her mother urges.  “Forward.”

Her father, a former finance minister for the Liberian government, admonishes his daughter to look at the facts: “You are alone.  You have the clothes you’re wearing.  You have the contents of your pack.  Including twenty euros.  It will soon be night.  It will soon be colder.  You are thirsty.  You will soon be hungry again.”

Once her belly is full, her thirst quenched, and temporary shelter has been found, Jacqueline has nothing but her memory, and that seems “like madness.”  For a while, “the act of eating displaced memory.  It was like a solid thing in a pool of water and the second you removed it, the water returned.”  Jacqueline comes to realize that “to live, one must be able to live with memory because memory was the constant,” even in such “precarious,” uncertain, and dangerous times as she faces.  Maksik breaks it down succinctly but eloquently: “We are our bodies, and we are memory.  That’s it.  That’s spirit.  That’s God.”

A Marker To Measure Drift unfolds in tantalizing parts, requiring patience from the reader.  Maksik offers up Jacqueline’s memories in tiny morsels, much the same way in which Jacqueline finds and consumes her food.  He employs this seemingly coy tactic because the whole horrible truth is too harsh to swallow in one gulp.

From Greece to Liberia, A Marker To Measure Drift follows an extraordinary young woman who has witnessed unspeakable atrocities.  At times, one cannot help but wonder if Jacqueline, “between madness and memory,” alone and bereft, has gone insane.  One thing is certain: Jacqueline struggles against erasure; through self-negation, she has erased herself from her violent past.  There comes a time when she can no longer expunge herself from her own history, when she must stop running from it.

Her father, ever pragmatic, scolds her, “You must always tell yourself the truth.” In the end, Jacqueline tells her new friend, Alexander Maksik by Beowulf SheehanKatarina, a waitress, the reason she fled her home country.  “Is telling” the truth “an act of violence, she wonders.  Will the truth “destroy the girl”?  In this instance, words are a balm for Jacqueline as she re-inserts herself into her own narrative.

In spare and lyrical prose, Maksik presents a tale as unrelenting as the sweltering sun on the hottest day of the year.  Jacqueline undergoes a sweeping physical and spiritual journey, one which leaves an indelible mark on her and on anyone who reads A Marker To Measure Drift.

Maksik draws effective parallels between the ruins of a Greek island destroyed by volcanic ash thousands of years ago and the country of Liberia, irrevocably changed by the torture and genocide that characterized the brutal dictatorship of President Charles Taylor (1997-2003). Fans of Chris Cleave’s 2009 stunner Little Bee will surely appreciate Maksik’s equally striking and impressive narrative.  When I finished A Marker To Measure Drift, I hurled the book across the room to get it as far from me as possible.  And then I wept.  I predict all who read this will have a similar reaction—such is the power of Maksik’s story.  

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It Just Runs In The Family

The Green Shore by Natalie Bakopoulos (Simon & Schuster; 368 pages; $25).

 green shore

Good writing must run in the Bakopoulos family.  Brother and sister, Dean and Natalie Bakopoulos have written three books between them.  Dean is the author of Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon (2004) and My American Unhappiness (2011).  This year, Natalie joins her brother with the release of her lush and picturesque debut The Green Shore.  They are the children of immigrants; their mother is Ukrainian and their father is Greek.  In a nod to her father’s birthplace, Natalie sets her story mostly in Greece and focuses on a dark period of the country’s history, one that is virtually unknown to most: the 1967 to 1974 military dictatorship.

This period in Greek history, quite honestly, was Greek to this reviewer.  Natalie Bakopoulos, though, takes this event and personalizes it.  In her novel, the political becomes personal, and the personal becomes political.

Bakopoulos does this by introducing readers to one Greek family and telling the story from multiple perspectives: Eleni, the matriarch and doctor with a passion for healing; her brother Mihalis, a poet who was once in exile; her daughter Sophie, a rebel at heart who flees Greece for Paris; and younger daughter Anna, a reluctant revolutionary but perhaps the fiercest of them all.  Revolution and resistance seem to be part of this family’s DNA sequence.  They all resist the military junta, yet each finds unique ways to oppose the colonels.  This family truly drives Bakopoulos’s story as we see what revolution will do to a country, a city, a community, and a family.

Since Bakopoulos is part Greek, she is intimately aware of Greek history and tradition.  Her knowledge and familiarity with Greece make this story all the more authentic.  Early on in the novel, Eleni and the rest of the family celebrate Easter.  Each takes a dyed-red egg.  Bakopoulos writes, “As was tradition, they would each take a hard-boiled, bright red egg and hit it together with the adjacent person’s, first the pointed end and then the round.  The last one with an intact egg was destined to have good fortune for the rest of the year.”  Reading this description, I could not help but wonder if the family itself would be cracked and broken by novel’s end.  Bakopoulos’s use of this Greek tradition is clever foreshadowing.

Although the family is intact by the end of the book, the dictatorship has altered each of them.  Eleni decides to help those people who have been tortured and abused by the government.  She, along with an intriguing man she meets, opens up a free clinic in secret.  This is Eleni’s way of resisting the junta.  Mihalis, meanwhile, continues to write and speak out against the colonels.  He, more than the others, is on the military’s radar since he is an artist and former exile.  His vitriol, not surprisingly, gets him into trouble once again.  It is Mihalis’s spirit that Sophie has inherited.  She and her boyfriend, Nick, get caught up in the early days of the revolution.  The colonels take Nick prisoner and Sophie flees to Paris.

The Paris setting allows Bakopoulos to explore another locale, but the heart of this novel lies in Greece, not in France.  And it shows in the writing.  As far as this novel goes, Paris cannot hold a candle to Athens.

Sophie may be away from the dictatorship, but the revolution is still a part of her quotidian existence.  It is through Sophie’s absence from Greece that Bakopoulos is able to focus on how a person can be homesick not only for a family but for a country, even for a nation in political turmoil.  Bakopoulos shows Sophie’s deep longing for home, a sentiment that only grows as the years go by.

Perhaps Sophie is less of a revolutionary in Paris, but only because she is not directly involved in the resistance.  Sophie, though, soon becomes a revolutionary in other, more personal and unexpected ways when she is pregnant and happily unwed.  The traditional Eleni must come to terms with her daughter’s newfound independence.

With Sophie’s departure from home, the younger Anna feels lonely.  She turns to her older married lover for comfort, but their relationship is doomed to fail, as all such associations are.  Anna is brooding and moody much of the time.  The decision to rebel comes too abruptly in her case.  It is almost as if she thinks protesting the junta is the ultimate way to stick it to everyone in her life.  I felt Bakoupoulos should have provided more allusions to Anna’s ultimate path.  However, in some cases, it is only one event or even one split second that prompts a person to resist.  But it feels wrong for Anna.  Her resistance almost gets her killed.

When The Green Shore ends, the military is still in power, although the last days of the junta are near.  Bakopoulos shows us that, regardless of revolution, life still goes on.  Lovers marry.  Women give birth.  Children grow.  The elderly die.  These are a fact of life and do not change based on political leanings or whims.

Natalie is the new Bakopoulos to watch.  Good writing or a rebellious spirit—sometimes it just runs in the family.

The Green Shore comes out June 5.  Bakopoulos will sign copies of her novel and do a reading from the book at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 27, 2012.

The version I read was an Advance Reader’s Edition.

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Spotlight on The Green Shore

I am reading an ARC of Natalie Bakopoulos’ The Green Shore.  This novel is the first book this so-called “bookmagnet” ever won on Goodreads, and what a great novel to win!

 

Bakopoulos is the sister of Dean Bakopoulos, author of Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon.  Good writing, then, must run in the Bakopoulos family.

In The Green Shore, Natalie Bakopoulos takes on an event in 20th-century Greek history that was, quite honestly, Greek to me: the military dictatorship that began in 1967.  Bakopoulos writes about one family and its role as citizens and sometimes revolutionaries.  She shows what it means for a family when the personal becomes political and when the political becomes personal.  I love her use of symbolism with the red Easter eggs and how each family member takes an egg and bumps another’s egg with it.  They go around the table until only one egg is left intact.  Great foreshadowing.

Lush and stimulating, The Green Shore is one of those rare novels that transport you from your chaise lounge or armchair to the beauty and uncertainty of Greece.  Makes me want to eat some spanakopita!

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