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The Raft, by Fred Strydom

Laurel from Zhurrat Reviews and I had the brilliant idea of reading a book together and having a chat about it. We both loved it, but for different reasons. On the one hand, I loved the technical aspects of the book – its form and style. On the other hand, Laurel really loved the subtexts and underlying themes, tying her interpretation into her religious beliefs, and generating some great introspection in our conversation.

For more discussion on the existential themes, free will, and how it might be considered a Christian allegory, continue reading our conversation over on Zhurrat Reviews.

“The day every person on earth lost his and her memory was not a day at all. In people’s minds there was no actual event. . . and thus it could be followed by no period of shock or mourning. There could be no catharsis. Everyone was simply reset to zero.”

On Day Zero, the collapse of civilization was as instantaneous as it was inevitable. A mysterious and oppressive movement rose to power in the aftermath, forcing people into isolated communes run like regimes. Kayle Jenner finds himself trapped on a remote beach, and all that remains of his life before is the vague and haunting vision of his son. . .

First Impressions

Kath: I was blown away by this book. It’s so cleverly put together, and there are so many layers and layers of symbols and meaning and metaphor and philosophy that I felt like re-reading it, or doing a proper literary study of it, would be endlessly rewarding. But it was also a jolly good read, with elements of fairy tales, the pilgrim’s quest kind of tropes, and good old apocalypse dystopia. I loved how international it was, although the main focus was in South Africa.

Laurel: While the first few pages were a bit like being tossed about by a choppy sea with the changing perspectives, the book quickly settles down as one becomes more able to hang the various threads together. I loved the memory tales – where a character would tell Kayle their story. These were really immersive and vivid. While the rest of the book was no less vivid, those were special. I really appreciated how it was primarily located in South Africa, but unobtrusively so. In my experience, too many books by South African authors get bogged down by the different cultures, languages and history. Not this book.

Memories are their own strange creatures, flitting between the tall trees of our experiences, inviting us to enter the dark and uncharted woods of our lives, promising nothing.

Laurel: Each of the characters were distinct personalities, and well-crafted. There was a rich diversity – even with their bland uniformity in terms of memory loss: Gideon maintaining a sort of aloofness; Anubis’s stutter and irrationality; Father and his family; Kayle’s drive to find his son. At times it was difficult to comprehend that the same author had written the entire book, such were the differences between sections.

Kath: I know what you mean. As I was reading, each time it jumped to a new character, the movie in my head took on a completely different medium – for example, Moneta’s memories felt like a William Kentridge animation, while the Chinese parts felt more like Japanese anime, and the raft felt like a Munch scream. It really reflected how people think differently, and how their memories would feel different, based on those different perceptions.

Laurel: I’ve only just started taking note of the “movie in my head”, or in my case, just the overwhelming image or impression. In my case, the majority of the book was in sepia – the events on the beach, Day Zero… I cannot really say that the other locations in the book impressed on me as much. They were just more normal.

What were the benefits, to you, of telling this story as it was – breadcrumbs?

Kath: Telling the story through breadcrumbs was wonderful. I love it when books take a linear story and jumble it up a little, and feed you little tidbits as you go along. It keeps the suspense going, keeps you reading, and it becomes a puzzle that you try to sort out. I also felt that it reflected the focus on memory really well, as we don’t remember things in solid linear form, but rather in scattered fragments.

Laurel: I really enjoyed the different sections, and they each fed into the rich tapestry that the whole creates. There was definitely nothing laboured or tentative when it came to switching between the different sections. No apologies offered. I think that trying to justify the different changes, or explain them, would have totally taken away from what this book is.

Kath: I loved the inception-like frame narrative with chapters of people telling their own story. I agree that it wasn’t labored at all; instead, each part had a distinct flavour and I thought it was very cleverly done, stylistically. I think this was one of my favourite aspects of the book.

It’s so hard to build stories like these without slipping into the “mistake” of “And then he woke up and it had all been a dream”, which is especially a risk here. But Fred Strydom does it so well, and often I found myself wondering what was real, and whether Kayle was mad and just hallucinating everything, or in a coma (as in Iain Banks’ The Bridge, which has a similar frame narrative of stories with a central hero figure trying to find his way out of it).The frequent time-jumping and flashbacks were effortless and perfectly suited to a book about memory and dreams.

Laurel: I agree with you on this. It was not always easy to tell what was dream or reality, and in the end, it didn’t really matter, did it?

He was beginning to panic, fear sprouting within him, growing like a rampant weed from the seed of his own insecurities. He twisted his limbs, panting, frenziedly looking for an escape from the prison that had shot up around him.

The narrative voice shifts person frequently. Did you find that jarring, or did you barely notice? Why do you think the author did that?

Laurel: The story starts off in first person. First person is something I’m very sensitive to, because either it works really well, or it falls completely flat. In this case, the first-person sections of the story are barely noticeable. Sparse use of pronouns is definitely a must here, and the author needs to immerse themselves completely into how people think. How THEY think. There are very few authors able to accomplish a first person narrative, and Strydom pulls it off in style. Probably, for me, it was the second person sections that jarred the most. Mostly because this isn’t a voice commonly used. But even it was nevertheless well done and clearly appropriate.

I think it was important to use the shifts to indicate where in the “action” Kayle was. Was he awake, dreaming, remembering…

Kath: The use of voice in this novel is the most sophisticated I’ve ever seen. Every time I noticed that it had shifted from third to second to first person, I had to flip back pages to see when that had happened, and I started to wonder why it had happened that way. For example, it starts off in 1st person – “I fell out of my dream…” as Kayle wakes up on the beach. Then suddenly, the identity of that first person has changed to Moneta, telling her story about her most vivid remaining memory. In the fifth chapter, it jumps back to Zero Day, and starts talking about Kayle in the third person. It was such a fantastic choice to do that; to step back from the “I” to the “He”, “A man”, showed that loss of identity in such a clear, and subtly constructed way.

Oh young man. Take this with you: tread lightly. Your memories are what are left of your experiences, and a memory that has been tampered with is not easily fixed.

And then you have extracts from The Age of Self Primary, where suddenly it’s a more technical, formal register in third person, talking about philosophy in a kind of dry way. But if you are able to wade into it and read between the lines, it creates this sinister sense of foreboding that adds a lot to the novel. It also shows that this book could be a sort of allegorical social commentary

As Strydom shifts in and out of first, second and third person narration, the reader is pushed and pulled in proximity to the characters, especially Kayle, and that conscious manipulation of the distance between the reader and the focal character is something I haven’t seen done before (at least, not this well). And it’s PERFECT for the subject matter of the book. This is a book where form has been as carefully considered as plot and style, and it is all the better for it.

What do you think is the central message of the book?

Kath: I think this book has several poignant themes. Firstly, there’s the theme of paternal love, and how no matter what, that love is strong and real and doesn’t ever go away. Second, there’s the more lofty theme of free will versus fate. I think that was what stood out for me the most: the idea of our lives being determined for us, and whether we’re as free to make choices as we think we are. Finally, there’s the theme of identity, and how we construct our idea of ourselves based on our memories of our lived experiences.

Laurel: I thought it was an important piece, though, about forgiveness. It’s better to understand one another, truly understand, than it is to wall off alone and isolated. To apologise and ask for forgiveness. It’s an excellent allegory on how guilt and grief can drive people apart, and on how we can learn from one another.

And so everything stopped. Industry. Commerce. Politics. Religion. Technology. They could no longer remember what their gods had needed of them. They no longer knew how to use the machines they’d once made, let alone how to improve upon them. Money was of no use because the values of various notes, coins and currencies could not be designated. So they became loiterers. Ghostly wanderers, doomed to haunt a world that no longer belonged to them.

How do you feel, now that you’ve finished reading the book and have allowed it to marinade some?

Laurel: For me, I don’t really know what to think. I wouldn’t say that there was anything hugely profound to take away from it. There were some excellent observations made within the text, some stellar writing (well, pretty much most of it was stellar, but I’m meaning those real “Ah-hah” moments), and overall a haunting (ok, I guess that’s one take-away!) work. I’m very glad I’ve read it, and it’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. But at the same time… I’m not sure. My brain goes kind of fuzzy when I think about it, or try to conclude anything.

Kath: I still think it’s a fantastic book, and I’d shelve it alongside Philip Pullman any day. I love that we were able to get so much out of it, in this conversation. I wonder what would happen if it was taught in schools – can you imagine all the ideas it might spark in a class of senior students? I definitely think this is a worthwhile book, and I think I’m going to keep a beady eye on Fred Strydom for any future releases.

For more discussion on the existential themes, free will, and how it might be considered a Christian allegory, continue reading our conversation over on Zhurrat Reviews.