Slow River

Nicola Griffith

Del Rey. $18.00
(trade paperback. $11.00)

The van de Oests, one of the world's wealthiest families, have made their fortune in water reclamation, from treatment at the municipal level to the regeneration of a destroyed sea. Lore learns the family business from her parents, her uncles, and alongside her older brother and sisters.

Shortly before her eighteenth birthday, Lore is kidnapped. Her family does not pay the ransom and the kidnappers leave her for dead, naked and wounded. The uneasy but familiar world has turned upside down.

Enter Spanner, who takes Lore in, cares for her, and teaches her to live by data ransom and blackmail, charity scams, and prostitution, on one stolen identity after another, until Lore nearly loses herself in the degrading spiral.

Three years later Lore has one last chance to make a life for herself. As Sal Bird she takes a low level job at a water treatment facility. She knows more about the treatment process that anyone else at the plant, but the precarious security of her new identity depends on Bird's feigned ignorance. Then Lore starts finding evidence of both gross mismanagement and deliberate sabotage, which will affect thousands of people if the plant fails. She can save the plant and the people, but only by revealing herself as a van de Oest -- and that means confronting her past and her family and herself once again.

Slow River is the quietly triumphant story of Lore's struggle, her battle against both the outside forces that would tear her down and the damages she has done to herself. As the book cover puts it, she must "meld together who she had once been, she had become, and the person she intended to be."

Lore's story unfolds in three interweaving plot lines -- her childhood, her time with Spanner, and on her own. The triple layers, each with its own distinctive style, add depth and texture to Griffth's deceptively simple plot, and work far better than a single continuous storyline could have.

Of the three, the narrative voice of Lore's childhood seems weakest, (although this might be relative to the skillful understatement of the intermediate voice and the obvious strength of Lore's final voice). The present tense delivery and disjointed quality of each scene risk trivializing these episodes as flashbacks whose purpose is to flesh out Lore's personal history. During the course of the book, this plot line gains importance in its own right, leaving Griffith's choice of present tense questionable.

Lore's voice of the intermediate past is weak for another reason, and deliberately so. During her time with Spanner, Lore is increasingly disconnected from herself. She has shut away her "past self," but also denies the degradation of her current life; and although never emphasized, the constant change of outward identity must also take its toll. Here the very feel of Griffith's sentences skillfully echoes the isolation and distance Lore experiences from herself.

The strongest voice is Lore's first person account of her time as Sal Bird at the water plant. For the first time in her life, Lore is speaking and acting for herself, if not quite as herself. All that remains is to re-embrace her pasts, which she does, in the end, in a symbolic turning on of lights.

Lest this emphasis on Lore's personality mislead, yes, Slow River is science fiction. Much of the technology is mere suggestion throughout the book -- genetic engineering, personal DNA identification, advanced and ubiquitous computer use, etc. Most important and best developed -- as well as most encouraging -- is Griffith's description of the water treatment process, especially since the beginnings of such systems can already be seen at the Smithsonian museums.


Slow River is the winner of the 1996 Nebula Award for Best Novel.

Read a sample chapter from Slow River at the Del Rey Internet site, or visit Nicola Griffith's web site .


This review copyright 1996 by Wendy Morris
Information last updated March 22, 1998

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