Book Review: Slow River by Nicola Griffith

This book, Slow River by Nicola Griffith, I’ve had on my shelf for years but never got around to reading. Not that I didn’t want to – it’s a Nebula Award winner and all – but it always seemed that other things grabbed my attention. I can thank the coronavirus social distancing and our local library being closed for the impetus to read some of the gems I have set aside. This is a good read, with fast pacing, fascinating characters, and a gripping plot that always made me want to keep reading a little longer than I had originally scheduled.

The protagonist, Lore, is the member of an ultra-wealthy family that made its fortune on patented microorganisms that purify water. As the story opens, she has just escaped kidnappers who were demanding an enormous ransom for her release. After weeks of captivity, she had despaired of her family helping her. A petty criminal named Spanner finds her wounded and naked on the street and takes her in, but then uses her in her own schemes of internet piracy, prostitution, and other illegal activities. For a time Lore and Spanner carry on an affair while pursuing Spanner’s illicit money-making schemes, but Lore eventually breaks free, moves out on her own, and gets a job at a water bioremediation plant that uses microbes supplied by her family.

Even though I write science fiction I have to admit that I am not very scientifically-minded, and some of the explanations about how the water purification process works, which Griffith goes into in detail, went over my head. No matter. You don’t have to understand the technicalities of the process to enjoy the story.

Griffith shifts between three narratives: Lore as a child during various stages of her maturation, Lore’s misadventures with Spanner, and Lore’s experiences at the plant, which constitutes the present day in the novel. She shifts between third person present tense, third person past tense, and first person past tense, each of the narratives having a specific style. I have read novels in which such stylistic flourishes do not work, but Griffith pulls it off well. The transitions are smooth and appropriate.

To me the book does not really have a science fiction feel to it, but this is not in any way intended as a criticism. It was published twenty-five years ago, back in 1995, and maybe then the setting seemed more futuristic. In 2020, there is no differentiating the supposed near future the novel portrays with what is happening in the present day. There are people, especially in the tech sector, who are as rich as the family in Slow River. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t know enough about bioremediation to know whether the techniques portrayed in the novel are futuristic or contemporary. It doesn’t matter. Twenty-five years after it was published, Slow River is still a good read. It is exciting, thought provoking, and emotional in all the right ways. Grab a copy (or download an e-copy) during these shelter-at-home days; you’ll be in for some great entertainment.

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