Caragh Medlicott reviews Drift, a strange, folkloric novel – the English-language debut of multi-award-winning novelist, playwright and screenwriter Caryl Lewis.
Convincing myth-making sometimes feels lacking in contemporary fiction. The publishing world goes in and out with the tide of trends, and the literary sphere often positions style above substance – implied surrealism favoured over the explicitly stated, and arguably harder to pull off, creations of magical realism. In Drift, the English-language debut of multi-award-winning writer Caryl Lewis, the power of the mythic is put front and centre. Here is the crisp and emotive prose of an athletic storyteller – one who’s novel, Martha, Jac a Sianco, is already considered a modern classic in Welsh literature – and she holds no truck with magical themes shrouded in prettified obscurity.
The sea provides the tempestuous heart of Drift’s story, set in a remote Welsh coastal village. The novel opens in a wind-torn cove, a place where the reclusive Nefyn loiters to collect “shells and whelks, egg cases and seeds”. She lives alone with her twin brother, Joseph, their shelter a rickety cottage teetering upon an eroding cliff edge. Though well-meaning, Joseph’s overbearing attempts to protect his sister mean that his long and sometimes mysterious work trips are, for Nefyn, “measured out in a line of round white tablets”. Though their lives are set apart from the rest of the community, the twins are silently overseen by Efa, an older woman whose dementia-stricken husband, Emrys, is slowly fading from view. A past struggle with infertility has left Efa yearning to provide maternal support to the pair who were orphaned by a absconded mother and drowned father. In expert strokes, Lewis conjures a pallid and monochrome world where rain needles and waves crash – the sea seizing “the foolish, the reckless and the unlucky”.
Meanwhile and nearby, Hamza, a Syrian mapmaker, is being held as a prisoner-of-war at a local military base (the same base which has spoiled fishing activity for locals thanks to drone activity sectioning the sea). On hunger strike, and clinging to past memories of a pre-war life (“every day was a day of resurrection”), it seems Hamza would rather die than stay incarcerated for an indefinite period of time, his days marked by regular mistreatment from sadistic prison guards. When a series of unfortunate events sees Hamza tossed into a stormy sea, it is Nefyn who saves him and nurses him slowly back to health.
The following events naturally conspire towards a plan to get Hamza home. Though his wife is dead, and the whereabouts of his son unknown, the persistence of hope in desperate circumstance is a central thematic concern throughout Drift. And so, too, is love. The romantic relationship which grows between Hamza and Nefyn is quiet but insistent, the eventual fact of its arrival seeming more inevitable than it might in summary. Their relationship is a coming together of perspectives, of cultures: “She tried to secure the tone of his eyes in her mind, he tried to etch the angles of her body into his, and together they made a map.”
Lewis takes pains to express the individualism of both Nefyn and Hamza, to show that their union is a harmonising, as opposed to disregarding, of their cultural differences. Hamza detailing the rituals of his religion and joys of a full life created prior to war; Nefyn speaking to Hamza in Welsh, revealing the secrets of her mother who escaped into the waves. Language, too, is emphasised. Each chapter heading presented in English, Welsh and Arabic. With recent refugee crises arising from conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and most recently Ukraine (amongst others), Drift’s themes of war and displacement feel all too timely. It is a thread of almost existential concern in this work, the inability to retain peace, to accommodate everybody fairly, the cyclical nature of it all: “The brutality of birth, the relentlessness of living things.”
This is a novel told via an omniscient narrative voice. The perspectives it takes cover not only Nefyn, Hamza, Joseph, Efa and Emrys – but also military personal who shuffle paper, forge records and neglect their wives. Such figures naturally fill an antagonistic role. Though their worlds are depicted without overt judgement or moral imposition, the pace of the novel means there is little time for enquiry into some fleeting moments of context (say, why a council estate upbringing has fed into calculating behaviour).
The introduction of Nefyn’s abilities is as gradual as a tidal shift, the strangeness of Nefyn, her unnerving stillness, makes these subtle changes easier to swallow in a novel which is – for the most part – starkly real. There is the occasional clang of something culturally familiar (a scene where Nefyn tells a prison guard to walk into the sea feels a little akin to Jedi mind tricks). Yet, it is the steady heartbeat pacing of this novel – its dark, enclosing atmosphere which helps to soften the edges of such moments. The sea’s omnipresence, too, makes the connection between Nefyn and it seem more native, natural – the sea the “temperature of blood”.
Drift is a rare novel imbued with the lingering aura of the mythic story – a reminder that good writing can shine hope on even the darkest issues of grief and war. Lewis finely weaves her imaginings, expertly paced, until their intensity churns like a collapsing wave. In a culture awash with the plotless un-novel, it’s refreshing to see the folkloric blended with hard-nosed themes, persuasive proof that a novel need not be just one thing or another.
Drift by Caryl Lewis is published by Penguin.