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Review: A Marker To Measure Drift, By Alexander Maksik

Adrift bearing memories of a faraway war

A young Liberian woman wanders on the Greek Aegean island of Santorini, clutching a pack holding a few possessions. She ekes out a precarious existence doing foot massages for tourists, and at night takes shelter wherever the nooks of the landscape will allow. She is in a dissociated semi-fugue state, her memories of the past incomplete. Her mind can't distinguish between past and present, and certain images are burnt on her retina: her mother encouraging or chastising her; her pregnant sister, a ginger cat winding between her legs.

Jacqueline is a refugee from Charles Taylor's Liberia, ravaged by civil war. We are presented with her memories as fragments which gradually coalesce to form a halting narrative of her past. Her father was Taylor's finance minister, her mother a religious alcoholic. Cosseted by dirty money, Jacqueline went to school in Cheltenham and then returned to a job as a tourist minister manufactured by her father. What happened between then and her arrival on Santorini is blurred, but we know it was catastrophic.

Alexander Maksik succeeds in creating a dislocated character numbed by post-traumatic stress disorder. Her father's adoration of the brutal Taylor, sentenced to 50 years in prison for war crimes in 2012, is cleverly used to create uncertainty: is his flirtation with Jacqueline unhealthy? Who is the father of his younger daughter's unborn child? Similarly, Jacqueline's fury at her ex-lover, Bernard, is used to reel us in: was he treacherous?

Meanwhile, the volcano of Nea Kameni is a metaphor for Jacqueline's potentially explosive state as a broke, illegal refugee, at risk from a shifty Senegalese gang, the suspicion of locals, and dehydration and malnutrition. The detailed sensations of every bit of food and liquid, each gruelling walk, cave or ruin slept in, and improvised mattress and pillow, can feel like refugee porn: gratuitous thrills at a character's barely clawed survival. And while the brutal behaviour of the Liberian child rebel members of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy is chillingly portrayed in a horrifying late scene, there is very little mention of Taylor's atrocities in Sierra Leone. But, niggles apart, this is a harrowing portrayal of the aftermath of war on a young woman.