Alexander Maksik’s first novel, You Deserve Nothing, about a student-teacher affair, was warmly received by critics. But the novel generated a bizarre, reverse-James Frey controversy after it was revealed to be largely autobiographical: Maksik had been fired from his teaching post at international school for the same indiscretion described in the novel just a few years previously. Suddenly, Maksik was getting publicly pilloried—most notably by his former paramour—for hewing too closely to the truth.
Given the unexpected dramatics his “write what you know” credo generated, it’s not entirely surprising that Maksik took what might be called the opposite approach with his second and latest book, A Marker to Measure Drift—though in choosing to write about a woman who hides out in a cave in the Aegean after fleeing her war-torn Liberian home, he also risks exposing himself to a different kind of debate, one (mercifully) beyond the ambit of this review.
Though currently homeless on the Greek island of Santorini, Jacqueline, our protagonist, came from a life of privilege; her father, an acolyte of Charles Taylor, had been Minister of Finance in the warlord’s regime. Her mother, however, had remained dubious; so much so that when Jacqueline was sent to England in her teens to study she begged her not to return. Jacqueline disregarded the advice. And after her mother’s worst fears were realized, it was Jacqueline’s French journalist boyfriend who helped her out of the country before fleeing himself in horror and disgust.
Destitute, starving and mistrustful of others, Jacqueline skittishly combs the beaches by day in search of food scraps. At night she retreats to her home, a cave by the sea, where she sleeps on a bed fashioned out of compressed garbage. Whatever she does, she does slowly and ritualistically, as if stretching out the present will somehow stop the past from seeping in. Through her mind runs a steady stream of dialogue with her dead mother, whose advice she now heeds more closely.
When the need for food becomes urgent, Jacqueline poses as a vacationing university student and offers massages to tourists on the beach. After a hustler intimates that he knows where she lives, however, Jacqueline feels compelled to abandon her cave and move on. As she searches for a new shelter, a friendly tour guide invites her to join a tour of local ruins and she learns that the island assumed its current form after a volcanic explosion decimated its entire population thousands of years ago. Even an earthly paradise such as this one, Maksik seems to say, was born of violence, upheaval.
A mirror to Jacqueline’s psychological state, Maksik’s prose is so stripped-down and skeletal that even commas come to feel like a luxury. Though the style initially holds an austere appeal, its mantra-like repetitiveness tends to drags the novel down in its middle parts and we find ourselves craving the minor conflicts and exchanges that Jacqueline so strenuously tries to avoid.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of our own Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, atrocities committed through the use of child soldiers have become widely known, so Maksik arguably had the option of remaining vague about the details of Jacqueline’s family’s fate at the hands of the “dead-eyed boys” who show up on their doorstep. The very mention of the fact, early on, that Jacqueline’s teenaged sister was pregnant when she died, is enough to set our minds racing. But he doesn’t, and I couldn’t help feeling that by treating the shock value of the event as the novel’s central revelation, Maksik detracts from what is an otherwise subtle, if slightly flawed, survival story.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor