Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Winner of the 1996 Nebula, Nicola Griffith's Slow River is an intriguing exploration of a troubled woman, born to wealth and privilege, but whose life is thrown into chaos by the actions of several family members. The story of Frances Lorien van de Oest (Lore) is told in a non-linear fashion. The sections set in "present day" are written in first-person, but there are flashbacks to her childhood, as well as a time about two to three years prior to the present, which are both in third-person. The chapters dealing with her early life typically begin with the statement of how old Lore is at that time, and deal with her education, her inclusion into the family business in her early teens, as well as the internecine quarrels between her parents and her siblings. The van de Oest fortune was built on the technologies and patents for genetically designed bacteria used in bio-remediation of contaminated water and soil samples. Clues are laid down for the exploration of Lore's adult state of mind, but they are incomplete and confusing, both for the reader and for Lore herself. It is possible some readers will guess the main culprit(s) beforehand, but the truth of all situations is not revealed until very late, and is experienced by the reader and Lore at the same time.
The timeline is not specified, but the implication is early-to-mid 21st Century. Several technologies are mentioned that were not available at the time of the writing, but are now, such as personal "slates," a combination of tablet and phone. Something that has been in the news recently is implanted computer chips. In this future world there are PIDAs, implanted between thumb and index finger, which are required of everyone for personal identification, employment and educational history, as a means of receiving work pay, and making payments for goods and services. The novel opens with a couple of pages of Lore's first-person account, then flashes back to three years prior, after she has escaped her kidnappers and is found on the street, naked and bleeding from a huge gash on her back. It is probable that if she had been found by someone other than Spanner she would have been taken to a hospital, or to the police, but for some reason Lore does not want that. Spanner is fine with that, since she is a thief and scam artist, and is used to avoiding authorities. Lore's PIDA has been removed, so she is dependent on Spanner for food, shelter, and medical care, but they later obtain another PIDA for her through the black market.
Even though Lore is grateful for Spanner's help, she quickly learns of her parasitic nature, and leaves her after a couple of years when she tires of being used for her scams. She had wanted to leave sooner, but had to wait until she made contact with others who could help her. Spanner was the only one in her new life that knew her real identity, and Lore aims to keep it that way. She obtains a new PIDA, extracted from a deceased woman then electronically altered, and lands a job at a water reclamation plant. It doesn't take her supervisor long to realize Lore (now Sal Bird) knows much more about the process than her work history would indicate. All the while this scenario plays out, we keep getting flashes of Lore's family life, then her tumultous association with Spanner, back to her teen years, her sexual awakening, forward to her sexual (not romantic) relationship with Spanner, back to the events that led up to her abduction, her escape from her captors, and her anguish over why her parents would not pay her ransom.
Recommended, but with a caveat. Be cautioned that this may be a traumatic read for anyone who has suffered from mental or physical abuse. The author's note at the end also cautions not to assume it is in any way autobiographical. It's fictional, but still a deeply emotional tale of a woman who has to relearn how, and whom, to trust. In the end, it is possible Lore has found another with whom she can share her life, someone who can ease the pain of her past, who won't judge her by what had been done to her, who accepts her for who she is, not who she was.
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