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).
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, Katarina, 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.