The Drift Latitudes by Jamal Mahjoub

Meet me down the Nubian jazz club
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The Independent Culture

The sea is at the centre of this fascinating novel. Literally, it is the ocean that connects countries and their respective peoples, the thoroughfare for travel, discovery and transformation. Figuratively, it is the gulf that divides different generations of the same family, the wide water that must be crossed on the voyage to one's true identity.

Jade is on such a journey. As her Trinidadian mother Miranda slips into old age and failing health, she embarks upon a quest to learn more about her late German father Ernst, a former U-Boat sailor, refugee and inventor.

The couple met in Liverpool in the late 1950s, enjoying a whirlwind romance under a dark sky of complications. Ernst had a wife and child in London, his first port of call following post-war emigration. He was not so much the proverbial wanderer-philanderer as a man whose life seemingly couldn't take root anywhere. Scarred by the brutal implosion of his homeland, he became pathologically restless, a human cargo with no final destination.

Fathoming the enigmatic realities of her father's life is not the only thing Jade, a successful architect, has on her plate. The death of an "illegal" on the building site of one of her designs casts major aspersions on her professional competence. Regan, a superb Uberbitch of a rival, is sharpening her long knife. There's talk of stressed-out Jade's drink problem. A career crisis looms very large.

All the turbulence and tension of the present effectively dovetails with the confusion and chaos of the past. Mahjoub shapes his central protagonist with a brilliant hand. Jade hires a detective to find the identity of the dead man but the enquiry isn't really about him at all. It's about her. She's simply underscoring the exploration of her own history. This probing frames the entire text, raising a quintessential question: can we have any sense of where we're going if we have no understanding of where we're from? Like any seaworthy vessel, Jade's ship of self-realisation needs a logbook as well as a rudder.

Mahjoub skilfully shuttles back and forth in time to uncover the entries. We're drawn into Ernst's adventures as a young sailor and inventor. We're intrigued by the poignant confessions of Waldo Schmidt, his last surviving friend. We're moved by the tragic story of Rachel, Jade's half-sister, who, as the embodiment of her father's migratory spirit, has followed her Sudanese husband Amin to his homeland, with tragic results.

Rachel's emotional loss is a key counterpoint to the spiritual gain of Jade's odyssey. In fact, parallels, connections and reverberations - through time, space and lives - are the real substance of the novel.

Characters are essentially musicians whose flighty solos harmonise to form a gymnastically arranged jazz score. The music is glue, unifying force as well as soundtrack. Jade's parents could have met nowhere other than a jazz club run by the high-spirited Nubian merchant seaman Ismail Bilal. The venue represents a duty-free cultural exchange, a crossroads for the Africa of Ismail, the Europe of Ernst and the Caribbean of Miranda.

By understanding that life is improvised on fundamental themes like belonging and knowledge of self, Mahjoub has made an illuminating statement about the human condition. His combination of sharp lateral thinking, structural ingenuity and descriptive power paints a vivid picture of identities in flux, cities as fluid, imagined spaces, the sea as a fixed backdrop of moving, timeless tales.

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