We don’t read so much about the poor in novels anymore. The moment when our greatest writers — from Sinclair Lewis to Walker Evans — turned their gaze on the stumbles of the American experiment has long since passed.
And yet while poverty remains, its global reality often has as much to do with America as a homeless woman sleeping on the streets of Somerville.
In the last decade, as US-backed dictators of African and Middle Eastern countries were ousted, the civil wars often left in their wake expelled refugees all across Europe.
Jacqueline, the 24-year-old heroine of Alexander Maksik’s second novel, is one such woman. We don’t know much about her as the book opens. She is homeless, alone, and desperate for food. “Jacqueline hadn’t eaten since the flattened chocolate bar she’d found outside the pharmacy,” the story begins.
Proceeding in short, intense bursts, Maksik follows Jacqueline as she wanders a seaside Greek village, searching for scraps. The spoils of tourists are fat, but to win them she must patrol under the hot sun and watch as people savor dripping kebabs, luscious ice cream, cold Coca-Colas.
Maksik, who grew up in Idaho, writes in a tense close-third-person voice that he uses to great effect. We don’t know, then, right away, that Jacqueline is black and Liberian; we don’t, in fact, know anything about her appearance. Just that she inspires charity or indifference in equal measure. Her past has taught her to judge a man by his eyes.
She is a mesmerizing heroine. Every decision she makes in “A Marker to Measure Drift” could end in her death. When a group of Senegalese men begin prowling a beach and eyeing her, she listens to a voice inside herself that says, “Move on.’’ As the book continues, Jacqueline begins to be mocked by that voice.
When she is not dodging potential pimps or sizing up tourists who might welcome a foot massage on the beach, Jacqueline daydreams. Memories of her past enter her consciousness in shards. A clean hotel room with billowing curtains. Her sister eight months pregnant. A lover’s hand tracing her spine.
Some of the flashbacks turn into narratives. Jacqueline wonders why it took her so long to realize her family was involved in Charles Taylor’s kleptocratic rape of Liberia. She stews in guilt over having been the kept woman of an overseas journalist. Still, she misses his touch.
In this fashion, Maksik gradually reveals his heroine to us. In the opening third of the novel these flashbacks are immensely powerful. How did an upper-middle-class woman fall so hard and so far from privilege? And what happened to her family?
Several recent novels have explored similar questions, from Lloyd Jones’s recent “Hand Me Down World,” which tells the story of a woman who walks from Africa to Europe in search of her child, to Ross Raisin’s “Waterline,” the tale of a Glaswegian hotel porter who winds up homeless after his wife dies of cancer.
All of these books raise provocative questions of representation. Mainly, is it exploitative for a writer to fictionalize a trauma he or she hasn’t experienced? Interestingly, Maksik’s debut novel, “You Deserve Nothing,” raised the opposite question: The tale of a Parisian high school teacher who has an affair with a 17-year-old was allegedly based on Maksik’s own life.
These questions of reality — and an author’s relationship to it — are ultimately red herrings. The desire to square fiction with the real world draws from a misconceived notion of what is moral in fiction. It is not the intention of the author that matters; it is the nature of response the book provokes. And how well the writing elicits it.
Maksik’s previous novel was a lightly engaging, creepy tale. But it was far from perfect. Its flaws grew from the weakness of its characterization of the teenager with whom the teacher sleeps. She isn’t believable, and her response to the affair’s demise even less so.
Jacqueline, however, is alive on the page from the outset, and with each paragraph she deepens, grows more complicated. Clearer and yet more mysterious. Voices from her past — her mother’s, her father’s — saturate her consciousness. It appears for some time she might be going mad.
In the final third of the book, Maksik briefly pushes Jacqueline’s internal cacophony too far. She has been avoiding friendships, attachments, mostly out of pride. She doesn’t want to be a charity case. Finally, she begins frequenting a Greek restaurant for a cup of coffee she can barely afford. A waitress shows her kindness. A friendship hovers.
Throughout this portion of the book Jacqueline is being mocked in her mind by her mother’s voice, drawn back constantly to Monrovia and the end of an affair she had there. The book may not need to tell us who Jacqueline really is, but the streaming flashbacks do not feel realistic, coming like full-fledged short films, no matter how beautifully written.
As it turns out, the two questions this book presents — will Jacqueline survive, and what brought her to this island? — are related. There is no present without the past. As the arrows of these plots slowly converge, Maksik brings Jacqueline’s tale to a devastating finale in which we see her plight in its awful entirety. Here is a woman who is doing everything she can to survive, but it may not be enough. In “Marker to Measure Drift,” Maksik gives her quest an awful and moving dignity.
John Freeman is the former editor of Granta. His latest book, “How to Read a Novelist,’’ will be released in October.