Slow River

Nicola Griffith
Slow River Cover

Slow River


A novel about discovering oneself, exploring relationships and a mystery whodunnit which ultimately is rather forgettable by the time one reaches the end.

The basic premise is that the central character Lore, an 18 year old woman wakes up naked and wounded following a kidnap attempt and is taken in by another woman named Spanner who nurses her back to health. Spanner lives and works broadly off-grid as first a hacker and criminal harvester of information for blackmail / exploitation and later a sex worker.

The story broadly follows three timelines consecutively, first the life of Lore before she is kidnapped as the daughter of an exceptionally wealthy family who through patents have stitched up the global 'clean water' business. The second thread is Lore's life with Spanner undertaking various underhand criminal activities and scams. The third thread is Lore's life after Spanner where she assumes the identity of a deceased person to 'start at the bottom' working in a waste water treatment plant.

I enjoyed the book for what it was and didn't find anything too off-putting. I quite liked the near-future setting and how Griffith predicted certain tech developments. In this world, Earth has been significantly impacted by pollution and presumably climate change, and it is clear that much of the world has no access to clean water without significant biological and technological input. Large stretches of the book are dedicated to clean water processes especially in the context of industrial espionage. I assume the science is plausible and it was fun to read really even if at times it may read like a bunch of chemical processes. I was interested in it especially because I recently visited a local science fair and chatted to a scientist who is working with nanotechnology to clean water so it's something I find quite fascinating.

I also read this as part of my LGBTQ speculative fiction challenge and I quite liked the portrayal of same sex relationships in the book. The relationships and dynamics feel quite natural and varied rather than 'cut out'.

Where I think the characterisation struggles a little is with Lore herself. She's trying to hide her real identity but once she gets in the water plant she shows she has more knowledge than anyone. I found it grating to be honest that by the age of 21 and only based on her childhood exposure to her parents work she is like an elite scientist / industrial manager. She literally has no flaws whatsoever in managing every aspect of what can happen in this plant. Part of my push back against this character is that she is written as exceptionally rich and privileged and we see this so often in books, they have no flaws, it's almost as though 'of course she will be perfect, she's rich and deserves it' - an unspoken assumption that infests our culture that the rich are where they are because they are naturally gifted.

I think the plot needs some work too - the central whodunnit based on her kidnap and ransom is solved way to easily. There is a secondary connected plot related to child sexual abuse also. Both of these are wrapped up so neatly with effectively brilliant guesses and assumptions by Lore. It tied up with my thinking about just how wonderfully clever we are supposed to think she is.

There are some interesting observations about identity - many characters assume different identities or roles, and there are some themes about the body as separate from our identity and the nature of exploitation, sexuality and the media which maintains one's interest but ultimately there is not enough in here to move it past, 'it was alright'.