Slow River, Nicola Griffith

Del Rey, 1995, 343 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-39165-9

I approached this book with the worst intentions. Faithful readers of these reviews may remember that a while ago, I panned Nicola Griffith first novel, Ammonite: Story was linear, science was goofy, agenda was anti-tech lesbian and everything worked better as a soporific than a SF novel. I had made a resolution not to touch Ms. Griffith’s work if that was possible.

Sadly, the 1996 Nebula Award results came in, and Slow River won the Best Novel category, beating out The Diamond Age and Starplex. Since I’m a Nebula completist, there was no choice but to read the g’dang thing. With stupefaction, I now have to admit that Slow River is a good book.

Story-wise, we’re miles beyond the ultrapredictible linear lesbian fairy tale that was Ammonite. As Slow River begins, a young girl finds herself wounded, moneyless, without ID in an unknown city. The girl is Lore Van de Oest, the youngest daughter of one of the world’s richest family. She just escaped from her kidnappers and she can’t return to her family for complex reasons. She is quickly taken under the protective embrace of Spanner.

Actually, Slow River begins a few years later, as Lore tries to build an identity separate from the domineering influence of Spanner… No, Slow River begins when Lore is five, and… Confused? Don’t be. The book is made up of three threads: Lore-Present (1st person POV), Lore-Near-Past (3rd person; her time with Spanner) and Lore-Past (3rd person, separate chapters; her life before/during the kidnapping) All three threads intersect nicely, even though sometime, I couldn’t wait to go back to the Lore-Present story. The plot is decent. Even though Lore isn’t (to me) a particularly engaging heroine, her struggles for love, identity and independence are gripping.

Surprisingly, this is a novel with a lot of science in it: since most of the story revolves around water purification, it’s no surprise that we get a lot of tech-talk about “bioengineered bacteria” and the like. I can’t vouch to the accuracy of everything, but at least it sounds right.

There should be a word or two here about the explicitly lesbian content of the novel: Lore is gay, and her behaviour (ie: falling for the most available girl(s) ) is about the same as we would expect from an active heterosexual young male. Whether this is ridiculous, or just indicative of the different society Lore lives in, is left to the reader’s prejudices.

Notice, however, the careful wording of the jacket copy, which uses no gender terms relating to Spanner. (Who is, naturally, female) Even though a quick search/replace job could be done to replace Lore by John with scant impact on the novel, I’ll argue that Slow River would be a weaker novel without a lesbian protagonist. (And certainly wouldn’t have won the Nebula novel) Those who think that Slow River is a militant gay novel are… wrong. Despite the fact that the only hetero couple is presented as dysfunctional, that most males are evil or weak… The fact that [Spoiler] is [Spoiler] should convince even the most paranoiac bible-thumper that this isn’t a Pink Lambda recruitment pamphlet.

Well, that’s a lot of wordage to say that despite my worst intentions, I can’t help but recognize this a decent novel. There are still a few problems here and there (The motivation and identity of the kidnappers is a bit far-out, but fits in the twisted logic of the book.) but nothing as blatant as her previous novel. The emphasis on another theme (water) makes the feminist/lesbian subtext much more tolerable.

I kinda liked it, and most readers with a sufficiently open mind should, too. While not being superior to Starplex, it’s better than Ammonite, and redeems the author to my eyes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *