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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A hypnotic, spellbinding novel set in Greece and Africa, where a young Liberian woman reckons with a haunted past. 

On a remote island in the Aegean, Jacqueline is living alone in a cave accessible only at low tide. With nothing to protect her from the elements, and with the fabric between herself and the world around her increasingly frayed, she is permeated by sensory experiences of remarkable intensity: the need for shade in the relentless heat of the sun-baked island; hunger and the occasional bliss of release from it; the exquisite pleasure of diving into the sea. The pressing physical realities of the moment provide a deeper relief: the euphoric obliteration of memory and, with it, the unspeakable violence she has seen and from which she has miraculously escaped.

Slowly, irrepressibly, images from a life before this violence begin to resurface: the view across lush gardens to a different sea; a gold Rolex glinting on her father’s wrist; a glass of gin in her mother’s best crystal; an adoring younger sister; a family, in the moment before their fortunes were irrevocably changed. Jacqueline must find the strength to contend with what she has survived or tip forward into full-blown madness.
Visceral and gripping, extraordinary in its depiction of physical and spiritual hungers, Alexander Maksik’s A Marker to Measure Drift is a novel about ruin and faith, barbarism and love, and the devastating memories that contain the power both to destroy us and to redeem us. 

This ebook edition includes a Reading Group Guide. 

Excerpt

Now it was night.
 
Jacqueline hadn’t eaten since the flattened chocolate bar she’d found on the step outside the pharmacy.
 
God’s will, her mother said.
 
The fortune of finding food just when it was most needed, just when she didn’t think she could stay upright any longer, here was food. 
 
God’s will, her mother had said for the fortune of the airplane.  She’d said it for the man with the truck. And the fruit pickers in Murcia. And the woman who had the brother who drove another truck. And the Senegalese girl in Alicante who helped her up when she rolled off the park bench in her sleep. Who took her home to her family, who fed her rice and chickpeas and gave her water. The grace of God, her mother had said.  For the woman who found her unconscious in the sand on a beach outside of Valencia, who walked her to the sea and wiped Jacqueline’s face with a dishrag that smelled of glass cleaner, who bought her coffee with milk and sugar and two sweet magdalenas. God for the Moroccan men who were arrested while Jacqueline walked undisturbed onto the ferry in Valencia. For the cove in Palma, where she found cardboard boxes and a dirty blue blanket folded on a flat stone. 
 
On and on her fortune went.
 
And for the man who’d beaten her on the beach in Málaga? 
 
For the diarrhea? 
 
For the absence of food? 
 
For the bearded man and his immaculate teeth?   We pay for our sins, for the sins of others, her mother said.  Anyway, we can’t understand. 
 
--
 
She knew she could not stay in that town. Not with all the people streaming off the ferries.  She sat upright on a bench. She watched them eat French fries stuffed into the tops of their gyros. From the bench she watched them being made in a small shop advertising the best in the world.  She watched the man slicing meat from a giant turning pile, could see him painting the bread with oil and tossing it onto the grill, could see him squirt a white sauce from a bottle onto the hot bread.  There were tomatoes and onions.  She watched him roll them and wrap them with white wax paper, and hand them across the counter along with cold cans of Coca-Cola.  The smell of the meat and its fat, the smell of thyme and the grilling bread all blew towards her.  She watched the tourists waiting in line. She watched bits of the meat falling to the ground, the sandwiches thrown away, half-eaten. 
 
What it took for her not to stand up and cross the square and dig for food. 
 
But she was not beyond pride so instead she ate the chocolate bar and tried to appear happy and bored.  This was, she’d decided, the appropriate attitude.  You must not be desperate. 
 
She watched the policemen walk past and tried to appear cheerful as she ate her candy bar. She ate as if she might throw it away at any moment, as if eating were an entertainment, as if it were something to do.  She thought, Perhaps when it’s dark I’ll go to the trash, but she saw that the square would never go dark. 
 
A band was setting up. The tourists kept coming, the lights came on. There were more and more police.  She stood and stretched her legs.  She felt as if she might lose consciousness and sat back down.  She waited until the blood returned to her head, until the feeling of nausea had eased.  She stood up again and left the square, turning onto one of the small streets, thinking she might find a trash bin in a darkened corner.  But every street was burning with white light.  The stores sold gold and t-shirts and alcohol and food.  Everywhere was food.  And the tourists pushed against one other and plodded along, as bored as the shopkeepers, who eyed Jacqueline as she passed.  Everything was shining with light, the narrow stone streets and the white walls, and the food, the drums of ice cream under glass, and the turning meat, and the faultless rows of tall plastic water bottles, cold in the refrigerators, all of it white under the light. 
 
There was a large foam cup of ice cream on a ledge outside the window of a jewelry store.  For a moment she thought it was part of the display, a prop for the gold chains.   Then she saw there was a spoon stuck into it. As if it were hers. As if she’d ordered it.  She moved to the side so that the cup was in front of her, so that she put herself between the street and it.  She pretended to consider the gold.  She shifted Saifa’s red school pack from her shoulder to her hand, hoping it might look something like the purses she’d seen the women carrying up and down these narrow alleys.  It would take one movement—an open palm, a turn of the hips, a sweep of the hand—and then she’d be moving along like the rest of them, eating as she walked. 
 
She could feel it.  Cup.  Spoon.  The ice cream cold in her mouth.  Bits of chocolate.
 
Then a man appeared in the doorway. 
 
He took a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket and shook one out.
 
He wore a clean blue shirt, collar sharp as knifepoints. 
 
He lit the cigarette and looked at her.  She looked back and smiled. 
 
“Nice,” she said.  The word felt misshapen and dry in her mouth. 
 
He glanced down at her feet, over at the pack, and back to her eyes.  She smiled again.  She could feel her heart.  “Have a nice night,” she said, turned, and walked away toward the square, leaving the ice cream melting in its cup.
 
She followed a road lined with eucalyptus trees and then a sign with the picture of an umbrella and a sequence of rolling waves.  The road was darker and darker.  She was on a hill now and could see the white lights of an airport in the distance, an occasional plane gliding away from the island.  She walked for miles along the dark road, following the signs to the beach. 
 
The beach, this beach, she decided.  She would go and sleep.  She’d sleep and sleep and sleep. 
 
Like the dead, her mother whispered, a little drunk, sitting at the kitchen table in the early morning, looking out across the lawn to the ocean.
 
--
 
There were lights on steel lampposts running along the beach road, and from the hill she saw the pools of white.  At one end a mountain of rock shot upward into the dark.  She walked down the hill, past closed restaurants with hand-painted signs and sandwich boards chained to trees. She descended the few steps to the sand and vanished into the shadow of the mountain, its peak invisible in the blackening sky.
 
She dropped her pack and removed her rubber sandals and pushed her swollen feet into the cool coarse sand.  Now she heard the sea.  Or now she became aware of it. 
 
The wind moved over her skin, cooler than she’d felt since arriving on the island the night before. 
 
She leaned against the wall and listened to the water drawing and breaking, drawing and breaking. Above the beach the first lamppost pressed a coin of light onto the concrete sidewalk.  She watched those coins stretch off in a slow curve along the road in the direction of the discos.  
 
Barefoot, she walked a few feet away toward the sea, pushed down her underwear, and squatted.
 
The urine burned and felt thick, as if it were turning to something solid. She needed water. She finished, waited for the last drops to fall to the sand, and shook her hips the way Saifa used to.  Then she returned to her dark corner. From the pack she withdrew the blanket, unfolded the neat square, and lay down on the cold beach. She drew the fabric over her body and then her face and fell asleep.
 
That night she dreamed of the bearded man. They were holding hands, laughing together on the lawn.
 
--
 
In the morning she woke with coarse dark sand blown across her face and piled up against her back in a smooth slope.  It was in her hair and in her mouth, caught between her lower lip and her gums. She gently removed the grains from her lashes and from the corners of her eyes.  She rose onto her knees. The sand slid down the back of her neck, and caught in the waistband of her skirt.  She shook her head, flinging sand from her hair, spitting it from her mouth, running her tongue over her teeth, along her gums. Then, still kneeling, she opened her eyes.
 
The sun was just rising.  The wind had turned and was blowing hard offshore.  She’d heard laughter in the night.  It had been far away, coming in across the water or drifting from the other end of the road.  Now there was no one.  As far as she could see there was no one anywhere.  But surely the shops would open, and the cafés above the beach with their tables set beneath colored awnings. People would come.  She couldn’t leave anything here.  She would need to be clean.
 
She looked out at the water.  Small waves were suspended in the powerful wind, blown hollow, their peaks torn off before they fell to the sand with a crushing sound.  She walked down the steep beach to the water, where she raised her skirt and slipped her feet into the foam lit white against the black sand. It stung where the glass had sliced her right heel, where the wire had cut her left ankle.  
 
She liked the stinging because it was sharp.
 
The salt will prevent infection, her mother said.
 
She liked her feet against the rough sand and the way the water pulled the sand from beneath her feet.  She watched the waves coming in again and again and again.  She leaned back into the wind and waited to decide.  
 
She did not know how to decide. She’d come to this point.  That was undeniable.  She was here, while before she’d been somewhere else. She’d come here by deciding.  She could not remember how she’d decided.  Or even the moment of decision or the consideration.  But she must have.  Logic insisted. Still, now she did not know how to decide.  So she waited.  And when the sun had been up over the low hills for a few minutes and already, this early, she could feel the heat of it, she decided to stay.  
 
Yes. She’d stop here.  
 
Perhaps it was because of the water on her feet.  Perhaps it was because she was tired.
 
Look, her mother said. Look at the sparkling water. Look at the color.  The sun in the sky, the orange morning, all of it evidence of intervention, everything, all of it, a convergence, the will of God. 
 
And this ugly yellow dog?
 
Jacqueline watched as it passed by on the road above, clicking its nails along the sidewalk, tongue lolling out. What? He is also God?
 
Her mother only smiled and looked away.
 
Jacqueline returned to her camp. She shook the sand from the blanket and folded it in half, then into quarters.  She slid the square into the thin white grocery bag and smoothed the plastic flat and gathered it together and turned it three times before tying a loose knot.  She fit it into her pack.  She leaned against the wall with the sun on her face and brushed the sand from her feet and slipped them into her sandals.
 
--
 
The tide was going out, leaving behind pools of clear water and small spits of wet black sand.  She climbed up onto the rocks and followed them away from the wide beach.  It only took a few minutes before she could no longer see the stretch of hotels behind her. 
 
She was looking for a place to live. 
 
She hadn’t thought about it this way when she’d pulled her skirt to her knees and walked through the water around the dark and giant outcropping.  But that’s what it amounted to. 
 
There were many caves in the rock, but all too low.  They’d take on water with the rising tide.  But she could see they were deep, and soon she found one above the sand at the very back of a beach like a long tongue with its tip pressed flush against the edge of the dark cliff.  She climbed up the rocks to just below the entrance and looked down at the sand still shining.  The mouth of the cave, only a few feet above her now, pronounced not an O, but an M. Three pale swallows rested on its bottom lip, a narrow ledge of rock.
 
You must be careful, her mother said. To break an ankle would be to destroy your life. Better to fall and crack your skull open and die. 
 
Jacqueline made her way to the edge of the cave.  The birds screamed and flew off to a nearby boulder, where they stood and watched her.
 
She swung her pack up harder than she’d meant to. It skidded across the floor and vanished into the darkness.  Then she brought her body up onto the ledge.  This was the only move, a step, two steps, that posed any threat.  The rock was damp and not quite flat.  Her right foot, which would require all of her weight, could slip out from under her and if that happened she would fall.  
 
Her foot held. She leaned forward onto her hands and drew herself into the cave. She turned and sat and looked out from the shadows at the sea.  She was lightheaded and felt for a long moment that she might lose consciousness.  She slid deeper into the cool cave, so that only her feet were in the sun.
 
She smelled crushed ginger in a hot, dry pan.
 
Hours passed and it was late afternoon when she woke.  She would have to eat.  It was no longer possible to ignore it.  She was nauseated and weak and cold.  Sunlight cut deeper into the cave.  She’d been sleeping on her back, but now rolled onto her stomach and turned so that she faced the sea.  She rested her chin on her interlaced fingers.  She watched the tide coming in, swallowing the narrow beach.  The light was turning soft and for the smallest moment it reminded her of the yellow sand at Robertsport. But now there was only her body.  There was nothing left for memory except for the memory of food.  She might have fallen back to sleep if not for the nausea and her cramping stomach.  
 
But you must not sleep, her mother said.  
 
Jacqueline knew this problem.  
 
Your mind knows you need food, but your body has abandoned the idea. This is when you must eat.  It is your last chance.  When your mind agrees with your body, you will die.
 
In a park in Alicante, she’d heard stories from three Tunisian women. Stories of people falling asleep in northern cities.  Fall asleep in the cold and you die of cold, they said.  They told her about drunken men who pissed themselves, their wet pants freezing to the sidewalk.  In Paris or Berlin or Prague or Amsterdam or London.  Wherever it was those women were going.  They said, there you die and people step over your body until the police come and tear you off the sidewalk and take you away.
 
Jacqueline had said nothing. She listened and remembered the grey cashmere coat her mother had sent for Christmas. It lay on her bed folded in its white box. And while the women whispered their warnings Jacqueline could feel the soft wool in her fingers, could see herself, collar up against the vicious wind, as she crossed Blackfriars Bridge. She could remember no one on the sidewalks.
 
She left the pack in the dark and made her way, taking tentative steps, out of the cave and down.  It was difficult to balance.  There was so much noise.  The wind and the small waves crashing and the rising tide. There was all the light reflecting off of the sand and the water.  
 
 
As she moved through tide pools and across the worn rocks, she forgot where she was walking, and then where she was on the earth.  She remembered that she’d made a decision to stay in this place but could not say what this place was, so she reminded herself that if she were to fall she might split her head open, or drown, or break an ankle and that she’d have to be cautious wherever she was, that she did not want to die yet, after all the opportunities she’d had to die, she would not die here of all places.  Then she felt her feet touch the coarse sand of the black beach where she’d spent the first night. She sat down with her back to the rocks and again watched the sidewalk curve away from her.
Alexander Maksik|Author Q&A

About Alexander Maksik

Alexander Maksik - A Marker to Measure Drift

Photo © Beowulf Sheehan

Alexander Maksik is the author of the novels You Deserve Nothing and A Marker to Measure Drift. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Nonrequired ReadingHarper’sTin HouseHarvard ReviewThe New York Times MagazineThe AtlanticCondé Nast Traveler, Salon and Narrative, among other publications, and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is the recipient of fellowships from the Truman Capote Literary Trust and The Corporation of Yaddo. He lives in New York City.

Author Q&A

Q: A MARKER TO MEASURE DRIFT opens on a young woman—Jacqueline—alone, hungry, destitute. We don't know the details of her journey, yet we come upon her in this dark moment. Is that how you first met her, conceived of her? How did this story begin for you?
 
A: I was living in Paris, but was spending a lot of time in a small village in the north of Italy where my girlfriend was studying. In the mornings when she was in class, I’d sit in the sun on the steps of the town’s palace where I could look out over the gardens and work. One morning a thin black man wheeled his bicycle through the gates. He sat on a bench beneath a tree and lit a cigarette. I’m not sure what it was exactly, but I couldn’t stop watching him – he had a certain elegance and poise, the way he smoked, the way he appeared so unhurried, the way he rested his elbow on the seat of his bike. Anyway, after an hour or so he stood up and left. Over the course of that week I’d see him each morning and we’d nod to each other. I’d not seen a black person in the whole region, let alone this village and I couldn’t stop imagining how he’d come to be there, what his life might be like, what it had been before.
 
For all I knew he was a tourist like me, or he was born there, or was a surgeon working at a nearby hospital. But whatever his story, somehow the novel began to crystalize with him.
 
It’s strange the way Jacqueline came to me. At first I was writing a male character from Senegal. I couldn’t quite get the feel of him – he remained vague as a character and I felt no real enthusiasm for him. Then by chance I read an article about Liberia and somehow decided to try writing a Liberian woman. I don’t fully understand it myself. I just know that as soon as I started something clicked, and I had her – she was so present in my mind. So alive. The story itself took more time, but her character arrived suddenly. I’m not sure exactly where she came from. It was an odd thing. Wonderful too.
 
Q: The novel comes to us squarely from Jacqueline, her often painful experience of the present and the memories that slip out from her past. What were the challenges (and maybe the joys?) of inhabiting a character so deeply, connecting with life experiences quite different from your own? Were there any surprises along the way? 
 
A: The strange thing is that this novel feels more personal than anything I’ve ever written. I’m put off by writers who have contempt for their characters. It’s so much easier to do that kind of work – to create characters with the intention of mocking and destroying them. The best writing is an act of compassion and I knew that the only way to approach a character so far from my own experience was to try to love her. And so the surprise, the real joy, was that I fell in love with Jacqueline, and that I was capable of doing so. I thought about her constantly. I missed her when I wasn’t writing. I worried about her as I fell asleep. I often woke in the middle of the night and saw her wherever I’d left her – on a beach, on a bench, on a path. I’d lie awake trying to figure out where she’d go next, which is precisely what Jacqueline was doing herself. So there was this strange fusion of experiences, those
in my imagination and those I imagined for her.
 
Q: Jacqueline is from Liberia. Through flashbacks her early life is revealed, both her personal past and the larger political and social realities of the region. What sort of research did you do to prepare for this aspect of the novel? 
 
A: When I was just starting to write the book I watched a film called Liberia: An Uncivil War. I found it deeply moving. A few months later I was a writer-in-residence on a farm in the Estonian countryside. I had the film with me and I watched it over and over again. Some of the images are hideous and brutal. Seeing them repeatedly in this picturesque, pastoral setting was an odd and formative experience. In an oblique way, I think it was the act of watching those images in the midst of so much beauty that helped me figure out the way Jacqueline would shift so fluidly between her present life on Santorini and the life of her memories. And then there was Helene Cooper’s memoir The House on Sugar Beach; Ellen Sirleaf’s book; other films; articles from all variety of newspapers; histories; UN reports on Charles Taylor; BBC recordings; and Tim Hetherington’s exquisite book of photographs, Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold.
 
Q: The current day setting of A Marker to Measure Drift is Greece, which is beautifully, luxuriously described, both the people and the landscape. Why did you choose Greece? Have you been there, know it well?
 
A: I wanted Jacqueline to wash up on an idyllic island – someplace at once pristine and haunting. I’ve spent a lot of time in Greece and on Santorini in particular. Oia, the small village at the northern tip is perhaps the most beautiful place I’ve ever been – a kind of beauty that is shocking and overwhelming, almost painful. The history of the island is fascinating to me – particularly the geological history. I love that the island was first created because of a volcanic eruption, and then blasted apart by another. I’ve always found that to be a wonderful thing – that all of those prized views, the dramatic cliffs are there because of a disaster. There’s always the threat there of another eruption. I wanted Jacqueline to be confronted with that strange beauty, with the impermanence of the place and the constant threat of catastrophe.
 
Q: Physical pleasures are also carefully and sensually described: a sip of water after deep thirst, sleep in a moment of peace and safety, a bite of salted meat after days of hunger. Did you alter your outlook to capture the heightened senses of someone long been deprived, and if so how? Or did it come naturally?
 
A: I knew that I wanted to write a kind of sensual novel with as little authorial intrusion as possible, to close the distance between reader and character so that Jacqueline’s immediate physical experience might also be the reader’s. It seemed the only way to do that would be to focus intensely on sensual detail. I tend to approach all writing this way – with a concentration on the sensate. I’m far more interested in living this way as well – I am happiest, most awake when I’m eating, or swimming, or watching a storm. I’m particularly alert to the physical world. I’m not an intellectual, nor an academic. I probably should have been a lifeguard instead of a writer. But writing this novel forced me to focus on what I’ve come to think of as sensual intelligence. And it forced me to pay very careful attention to hunger and thirst and fatigue and changing light and all the rest.
 
Q: As we watch Jacqueline propelled across the Greek isles, we are also slowly introduced to her family—powerful father, beloved baby sister, glamorous mom. With nothing to go on but Jacqueline's often jumbled impressions, the book looks at the painful interplay between memory and madness. Can you talk a bit about exploring this intersection?
 
A: I wanted to tell the story as naturally as possible – in the way that the story might unfold for Jacqueline herself. There is her present life. There are her immediate problems – where to sleep, what to eat, where to wash. But there is also memory and because she’s constantly alone and isolated, those memories, and particularly those individuals she remembers so clearly, come to feel real. I’ve spent a great deal of time alone in my life and when I do I’m often struck by how quickly I fall into a sort of conversation with myself. This may make me sound mad, but the longer I spend alone the more moment seems to blend with memory. The dead come back to you, the world seems sharper, old friends appear. After a while it becomes difficult to distinguish between memory and present life. Finally, I think, the novel is about that very interplay between those two modes of existence and the importance of storytelling as a way to maintain one’s sanity.
 
 
Q: Can you tell us about the title, A MARKER TO MEASURE DRIFT, and why you chose it?
 
A: When I was young my parents would take me to the beach.  While they sat on the sand I’d swim in the ocean. We always brought a little red and white cooler with us for sandwiches and drinks. I’d keep an eye on that cooler as I was swimming and use it as a way to measure how far I’d drifted in the current – it was a marker to measure drift. I think of Jacqueline searching for a solid, permanent home from which she can measure how far she’s drifted. Of course, I mean this in various ways.
 
Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?
 
A: In no particular order: Faulkner, Wislawa Szymborska, James Salter, Mavis Gallant, J.M. Coetzee, Mary Gaitskill, Hemingway, Chris Abani, Claire Messud, Chekhov, WS Merwin, Richard Hugo, Kafka, Flaubert, Sharon Olds. I always get tripped up on this question. I forget half the people I love.  
 
Q: What are you working on now?
 
A: I’m just finishing a collection of short stories. And I’m about to head off into the woods for a few months to work on my next novel. Very generally it’s a story about the importance of fantasy and the hereditary nature of mental illness. That’s all I want to say for the time being. I’m superstitious.

Praise

Praise

“Immensely powerful. . . . Beautifully written. . . . Jacqueline is a mesmerizing heroine.” —The Boston Globe

“Haunting and sensual, Maksik’s prose deftly intertwines the tenderness and torment of memory with the hard reality of searching for sustenance and shelter.” —Harper’s 

“Beautiful. . . . It will leave you breathless and speechless; it will send you reeling.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“No novel I read this year affected me more powerfully than Alexander Maksik’s A Marker to Measure Drift.” —Richard Russo 

“Maksik’s lean, affecting prose burns . . . stripped of any excess, entirely attuned to the prospect of survival, beautifying the simple things that sustain life.” —The Atlantic
 
“Beautiful. . . . Compelling and visceral. . . . One rushes until the fever breaks, dazed and haunted by its power.” —Chicago Tribune (Editor’s Choice)

“A bold book, and an instructive one. . . . [Maksik] has illuminated for us, with force and art, an all too common species of suffering.” —Norman Rush, The New York Times Book Review

A Marker to Measure Drift is a haunting, haunted novel. Things get stripped down to essentials—food, water, where to sleep for the night, a state of solitary desperation brought on by the most profound kind of loss. Every line of this excellent novel rings true as Maksik leads us toward the catastrophe at the story’s core. This is one of those books that leaves you staring into space when you finish, dazed from the sheer power of what’s been said.” —Ben Fountain

“Beautifully written. . . . Through an impressionistic stream of consciousness, Maksik slowly reveals Jacqueline’s ordeal. . . . A novel that measures the ripple effect of trauma and violence.” —The Daily Beast

“A work of stupendeous imagination. . . . [A] truly breathtaking accomplishment.” —Ayelet Waldman

 “Gorgeously written, tightly wound, with language as precise as cut glass. . . . I was undone by this novel. I challenge anyone to read it and not come away profoundly changed.” —Marisa Silver, author of Mary Coin and The God of War

“This novel is spellbinding. In its tenderness, grandeur and austerity, it reminds us that there is no country on earth as foreign, as unreachable, as the frantic soul of another human being.” —Susanna Sonnenberg

“Arresting. . . . Here is a human, detached from humanity, in pain and need. The world swirls around, the past lingers, but this human is at the center, small and yet deep. Maksik’s prose brilliantly delivers—I think he has fully realized what this story could be, and has told it in the best way possible. An amazing accomplishment.” —Lydia Netzer, author of Shine Shine Shine

“A moving, deeply felt and lyrical novel about past and present.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“A vivid depiction of disillusionment, shock, and resilience. . . . Sheds light on a setting great in both its beauty and violence. . . . An exploration of terrible brutality and the effort it takes to survive.” —Library Journal

“Gorgeous and evocative.” —Publishers Weekly

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The introduction, author biography, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of A Marker to Measure Drift, a gripping new novel by Alexander Maksik.

About the Guide

A Marker to Measure Drift tells the unforgettable story of Jacqueline, a young Liberian woman self-exiled on a Greek island after witnessing the brutal murder of her family during the reign of Charles Taylor. Plagued by the guilt that comes with survival and the pain that comes with remembering, Jacqueline teeters between memory and madness, ravaged by remembrances of the past—her mother’s advice, her lover’s touch, her sister’s companionship, her father’s fantasies and misplaced faith. In a place of immense beauty, she must confront a devastating past and find ways to survive poverty, starvation, and a staggering loneliness that seems to have forced her into exile from humanity itself. She makes money by giving massages to tourists on a beach, takes refuge in a cave accessible only at low tide, turns abandoned buildings into homes, and practices the looks and gestures of the people who surround her. One decision at a time, she carries on, reclaiming her life.

Pairing lyrical prose with lush imagery, Maksik creates an electrifying story in which all senses are heightened: readers can taste each bite of food with Jacqueline, see through her eyes, and feel each tortured step she takes. Like the peach pit that Jacqueline seizes in her fist, A Marker to Measure Drift is sharp, piercing—a meditation that plunges its readers to the absolute depths of human experience. Through the journey of his remarkable heroine, Maksik illuminates the triumph of human will, exploring the ways we cope with tragedies beyond our comprehension and losses of the most staggering proportion. Revealing both the welcome comfort and devastating pain of memory, Maksik’s novel is ultimately a stunning story of courage and strength, of how we endure, of how we go on and find our way—even when all seems to be lost.

About the Author

Alexander Maksik is the author of the novels You Deserve Nothing and A Marker to Measure Drift. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Nonrequired ReadingHarper’sTin HouseHarvard ReviewThe New York Times MagazineThe AtlanticCondé Nast Traveler, Salon and Narrative, among other publications, and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is the recipient of fellowships from the Truman Capote Literary Trust and The Corporation of Yaddo. He lives in New York City.

Discussion Guides

1. Why might the author have chosen to use these quotations by Eudora Welty and Robert Graves as epigraphs? What relationship do they have to the major themes of the novel?

2. Consider the first sentence of the novel: “Now it was night.” What impact does this line have? Is it an effective first line? What symbolic relevance might it have? How does it foreshadow Jacqueline’s state of mind and being? How does Maksik use darkness and light throughout the book, and what purposes might this particular imagery serve?

3. Jacqueline’s point of view clearly dominates the story. Readers never really know what other characters think of her, only how Jacqueline believes she is being perceived. How does this influence our reception of the story and shape our understanding of Jacqueline? How does point of view allow Maksik to develop a sense of sympathy or empathy among readers? Is he successful in doing so?

4. How does the author evoke or document sensory experience in the novel? How does he capture sensation? Why is this detail of the work so important? What does it reveal about Jacqueline and her experiences?

5. Much of the novel is devoted to descriptions of Jacqueline’s hunger and her experience of looking for or eating food. Consider the various ways that the author treats the subject of hunger. How do the tourists eating as “an entertainment” (4) contribute to this dialogue and influence our understanding of Jacqueline’s own experience? How is hunger used metaphorically within the novel?

6. Jacqueline often reminds herself of the proper way to handle situations. Why is she concerned with pride and a sense of grace and propriety though she suffers so? Why does she refuse charity and, more broadly, refuse to ask for help? Why does she lie to the people she meets instead of sharing her story? What message does the book present, then, about human dignity? And about guilt? What role does charity play in the book, and how do acts of charity contribute to Jacqueline’s survival?

7. Until the conclusion of the story, the book contains minimal dialogue. Most exchanges take place via Jacqueline’s hallucinations or imaginings of conversations with her mother. Why do you think the author chose to limit dialogue in this way? What does it tell us about Jacqueline? Why is it important that this changes by the end of the story?

8. Analyze and evaluate the plot or narrative structure of the story. What would you identify as the major actions of the story? How does the spare plot enhance the feeling of Jacqueline’s psychological turmoil? How do each of Jacqueline’s actions allow her to cope with her psychological condition?

9. Jacqueline often hears her mother referring to will of God, but what role does faith ultimately play in the novel? Does Jacqueline share her mother’s point of view? Does this change throughout the story? What does Jacqueline’s conversation with her sister, Saifa, reveal about her views of faith? What does Jacqueline ultimately decide to pray for? Are her prayers answered?

10. Evaluate the form of the novel. How does the structure of the book complement and support or contrast with the major themes of the novel, and what does it reveal about Jacqueline’s state of mind? What is the effect of the short sections, and of Maksik’s clean, spare prose? Does the form ultimately complement the content?

11. What message does the book offer about memory? What does Jacqueline mean when she considers the link between memory and madness? Are Jacqueline’s memories reliable? Does her process of remembering help her or hurt her?

12. Jacqueline’s memories of Bernard are both fond and furious. Why? Do you believe she is justified in feeling as she does? Why or why not?

13. How does the author create a sense of time passing? How do imagery and structure help to facilitate this? What other literary devices does the author use to create a sense of the passage of time or a sense of past and present?

14. Jacqueline escapes the violence of Liberia and exiles herself on a beautiful Greek island. She also spends times amid ruins, which contain an active volcano. “What was once an island is now the ruins of an island” (99), Maksik writes. Evaluate the setting. Discuss the purpose and effect of the author’s choice of setting.

15. Jacqueline seeks shelter in a cave and among unfinished structures. How does she treat these sites or act within them? What rituals does she engage in there? Why are such rituals important? What might they indicate about the human experience?

16. What message or messages does the book contain about survival and human will? How does Jacqueline manage to survive? What attributes allow her to keep going and to make progress? What obstacles does she face and how does she overcome them?

17. Jacqueline often pauses to recognize that she has made a decision. What role does choice play in the novel? What does Jacqueline mean when she thinks of returning to “the endlessness of choice” (102)? Conversely, what role do fate and serendipity seem to play in the novel? Does the novel seem to indicate that we have control of our lives, or not?

18. Why does Jacqueline’s father support Charles Taylor? What effect does this have on their family’s lifestyle? What impact does it ultimately have for the family? Why does Jacqueline return to Liberia after school despite her promise to her mother that she will stay away? What does this indicate about the intersection of the political and the personal? What message does it offer about our ethical choices?

19. At the conclusion of the novel, though Jacqueline finally reveals her story, she wonders if “telling it [is] an act of violence” (208). What does she mean by this? She also admits that she has “forgotten the reason for stories” (208). What seems to be Jacqueline’s reason for telling her story to Katarina? What does Katarina want to share with Jacqueline? What might each woman hope to gain from telling her story? What might the final scenes indicate, then, about the link between catharsis and storytelling or the comfort of common experience?

Suggested Readings

Abani, Chris. Song for Night; Alameddine, Rabih. The Hakawati; Carr, J. L. A Month in the Country; Coetzee, J. M. Life and Times of Michael K; Cooper, Helene. The House at Sugar Beach; Glass, Julia. The Widower’s Tale; Hage, Rawi. Cockroach; Hamsun, Knut. Hunger; Hetherington, Tim. Long Story Bit by Bit, Jen, Gish. World and Town; Jin, Ha. The Writer as Migrant; Johnson, Ellen Sirleaf. This Child Will Be Great; Mann, Thomas. The Magic Mountain; Márquez, Gabriel García. One Hundred Years of Solitude; Matar, Hisham. In the Country of Men; Messud, Claire. The Last Life; Mojtabai, A. G. Autumn; Orner, Peter. Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo; Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way; Waugh, Colin M. Charles Taylor and Liberia: Ambition and Atrocity in Africa’s Lone StarState.

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