Slow River by Nicola Griffith was one of the very first lesbian fiction novels I read. That’s probably one reason it’s stuck with me this long, though it certainly isn’t the only reason. It’s no surprise that the book won the author both Nebula and Lambda Literary awards. It’s a novel layered like a delicious cake of sci-fi goodness.
At its core, this is a story of self-discover wherein the main character, Lore, has to overcome her upbringing and find out who she is. In Lore’s case, overcoming her upbringing means moving beyond a background of immense wealth.
We’re introduced to Lore when she leaps naked from the back of a moving van to escape her kidnappers. As the scion of a wealthy family who are in the bioremediation business, she was captured and held for a ransom that never came. Unable to go back to the family who betrayed her, Lore hooks up with the morally bankrupt Spanner. Survival requires Lore to make difficult and very questionable decisions. She decides to make a break with street life and go straight, but finds that not all is well on that path either. In fact, the stakes are much higher than they ever were when she was with Spanner. She not only has herself to worry about, but thousands of people in London. Can she save them while keeping herself hidden from her family?
We find out a lot about Lore Van Oest in this story, it is her point of view after all. It’s told from three separate points in her personal timeline. She goes from an earnest child of privilege, to a cunning scrapper on the streets, to a mostly upright citizen trying to make a decent living for herself. Lore changes a lot between those three different versions of herself. She does what she needs to in order to survive, but that drive is tempered by conscience. At the end of the day, Lore wants to be able to look herself in the mirror and be okay with the person who looks back.
Spanner has spent much of her life on London’s unforgiving streets. She’s cunning enough to make a get by pretty well. About the kindest thing that can be said about her is that her money-making enterprises rarely inflict serious damage upon their victims. She has a certain raw charisma and that, coupled with the gratitude Lore feels toward her as a rescuer, lead the two of them into a tumultuous relationship.
Cherry Magyar is Current-Lore’s boss at the sewage plant where Lore works after getting herself on the straight and narrow. She’s portrayed as smart, competent, but in over her head. She and Lore throw sparks off each other when Lore first appears, but settle into an understanding with the possibility of something more.
The Writing Style
This is not one story, but three. We get to see Lore at three different stages of her life. Nicola’s solution to presenting three different storylines concurrently is to endow each one with a different tense and point of view. The current Lore is told from the first person and in the past tense, which imbues it with a certain immediacy and makes it concrete. Lore in the recent past is handled in the past tense and in the third person, allowing it to feel somewhat removed from the life of Current-Lore. And finally, Lore’s childhood days are handled from the third person and in the present tense, a decision I found went really well with the way children see the world.
The best part of the narrative being woven together in three different parts is that we, as the readers, get to experience the world Nicola has created, and her character in much the same way Lore does. It allows us to watch over Lore’s shoulders as she puts together the truth behind the many betrayals in her past. We’re able to sympathize and even empathize with a character who has done morally questionable things to survive, and we understand her motivations all the more because of it.
To find out more about Nicola’s process and reasoning behind the varied POVs, check out the author’s blog post “Writing Slow River.”
The prose is amazing. Nicola manages to build a world that feels solid without over-describing, or info-dumps. Somehow, she manages to make even the most mundane details interesting. Lore’s work at a sewage treatment plant should be boring compared to her life as a wealthy socialite or her life on the streets, but it’s just as exciting as either of those two worlds. Characters are distinct and memorable, and they add additional layers of realism and intrigue to the story and to the world Nicola has created.
This is a book that stays with you. I’ve read it multiple times since the late 1990s; each time the book’s footprint in my head lingers. There’s so much to recommend it. The dystopian future in this near-future London seems very plausible, and many of the futuristic touches are downright prophetic. One aspect I particularly love is that homosexuality is simply a part of the way things work in this future. It is no more remarkable than having brown hair or two legs.
I usually like my lesbian books to include some sex. This one deals with sex and its complications, but doesn’t go into the gory details. This book has so much richness that the lack of descriptive sex doesn’t bother me at all. However, if you’re a dyke who likes her books with some sexual sizzle, you won’t find it in this one. I can promise you won’t be disappointed, however.
Anyone who considers herself a fan of lesbian sci-fi should read this book. It is easy to see why it’s an award-winner. Non sci-fi fans should give it a try as well. The sci-fi elements are definite, but not intrusive. While it’s set in the future, the story has universal appeal. It isn’t your typical lesbian novel. Parts of it are difficult to read, and there’s no promise of a happy ending (though it’s hinted at, and I like to think it comes to be). It is so worth it. This is one of my very favourite novels because of all the things it is and isn’t.
Excerpt from Slow River by Nicola Griffith
Lore studied herself. Brown hair, straight brown eyebrows, clear grey eyes, skin a little paler than usual but still tight-pored and healthy. Thinner than she used to be. Even teeth. She thought she looked remarkably good, considering what she had been through. “I think I look fine.”
“Not look at me.”
Spanner’s skin was big-pored over her nose and cheekbones. There was a tiny scar by her mouth. Her teeth were uneven, her neck thin. Her complexion had a grayish tinge, like meat left just a little too long. Lore thought she looked a lot better than Spanner.
Spanner was nodding at her in the mirror. “Exactly. You see the difference? You’re too damn…glossy. Like a racehorse. Look at your eyes, and your teeth. They’re perfect. And your skin, not a single pimple and no scars. Everything’s symmetrical. You’re bursting with good health. Go out in this neighbourhood, even in rags and you’ll shine like a lighthouse.
Lore looked at herself again. It was true. Eighteen years of uninterrupted health care and nutritious food
on top of three generations of good breeding had given her that unmistakable sheen of the hereditary rich. She was suddenly aware of the cold tile under her feet, of the cracks she could feel between her toes. It was not yet winter. She wondered what it would be like to be cold involuntarily. She touched her eyebrows, her nose. How strange to discover something about oneself in a stranger’s bathroom. “I assume it can be fixed.”
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Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number: 9780345395375
- Publisher: Ballantine Books