SFM Review: Slow River by Nicola Griffith (1995)

slow-river-coverI can’t shake the impression I have that science fiction is going to be dry (or that fantasy is going to be some pseudo-medieval Royalty with magic). I know better. I’ve read so many books that aren’t those things and I keep waiting to be proved right. I think you’ll agree this is madness.

The only reason I mention it is because Slow River is anything but dry and dusty. It’s complex, emotive, and daring. It leaves a mark, which is one that I want from the SF Masterworks collection. I do want them to leave a lasting impression after I’ve read them as much as I’d like them to be worthy of being put on a pedestal. Obviously, the reasons for elevation vary, historical importance being one, but impact for me is the thing that keeps me exploring and Griffith definitely has that.

Lore’s troubled life is presented through three different timelines: childhood, recent past and present. The present is told in the first person and the flashbacks are told in the third. Actually, it’s unfair to call them flashbacks as they are threads that weave to let the reader know how Lore Van Oesterling, daughter of one of the world’s most powerful families, ends up with a thief and predator like Spanner.

It raises one big question: What would you do to survive? Lore’s new life with Spanner does make for uncomfortable reading. The depths that Lore descents to in order to pay off the debts owed to Spanner, who rescued her when she was dropped naked and injured in the street after her kidnaping, is a long way to fall.

Lore’s first meeting with Spanner is described in the recent past thread and in the present she starts a job, which is several levels below her knowledge and skill, but is also safe from scrutiny, that is until she has to out herself to her suspicious boss or risk the lives of her co-workers.

Getting to know Lore at these differing points, her childhood being probably the saddest, makes for a powerful exploration of who she was and who she has to potential to be. The ease in which Griffith presents the rightful normality of the same-sex relationship that Lore and Spanner share is to be commended, though if it wasn’t as self-destructive then there would be no drama. It’s the dynamic of their relationship, rather than the sexuality of it, which makes it dangerous.

There is a under-representation LGBT characters in speculative fiction in general and having Slow River as a SF Masterworks is a confidence boost especially as Griffith doesn’t shy away from the the darkness which Spanner subjects Lore to, there is romantic sex and depraved acts (due to their impact on Lore rather than the acts themselves), but all are shown with the same respect to the characters and the story that Griffith has set out to tell.

Part of me is jaded by stories of impossibly rich people because it removes layers of reality and replaces them with an easy fantasy but this story used that difference to good effect as even in those scenes where the ‘reality’ of wealth is too distorting Griffith keeps it raw. She shows the ways  Lore’s parents use their children as pawns and how naivety can obscure the reality of the situation. If you’re wondering why doesn’t Lore just leave or go back to her family? Well that gets explained and, as in this life, going back isn’t that simple.

Griffith leaves the ‘best’ revelation until last and makes it the most gut-wrenching moment though that’s not the only one you’ll have. This story has several moments where facts shift your understanding. I’m tiptoeing around so much of what makes it a powerful and essential read but I really don’t want to say to much more.

Slow River deserves its place on the SF Masterworks and needs a slightly higher pedestal just to make sure it’s not overlooked.

Read it.

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