Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Lionel Shriver’s “Kilifi Creek” was originally published in the November 25, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
“Kilifi Creek,” by Lionel Shriver, is something of a dead-pan thriller, and I liked it very much. It had that combination of wealth, sheen, adventure, and danger that we like so much. At a certain point, it becomes a page-turner, as it calmly mines the reader’s capacity for fear and empathy. Beautiful Liana is something of a “freeloader,” and for the first half of the story, you love to hate her. You are just waiting for her come-uppance. But when she does actually get her come-uppance, about half way through, you feel first interest, then fear, and then you really care. Shriver makes sure that you know it’s her youth and callow inexperience talking most of the time, but she’s a risk taker, and she listens to no one. In the midst of the worst of it, the narrator remarks:
Had she concentration to spare, she might have worked out that this whole emotional package was one of her first true tastes of adulthood: what happens when you realize that a great deal, or even everything, is at stake and that no one is going to help you.
Having dropped in for a visit at the pleasant Kenyan villa of two well-to-do Brits, Liana makes a series of ignorant wrong moves that she gets away with on account of her beauty. She dresses too skimpily, she eats up a storm, she doesn’t offer to pay for the groceries or wine, and she is somewhat contemptuous of her hostess, a well-known photographer.
After having been there a few days, after taking a daily swim in Kilifi Creek, which is more like a river, she has a brush with death — a scary tale that takes quite a while to tell. And in the aftermath she seems different.
But in fact, while she may be wiser about the skimpy clothes, or politer about unannounced visits, she is basically the same rebellious risk-taker at 37 she was at 20. But she’s been happy.
I have tried to just skim the surface of this story. I enjoyed it and recommend it. As Willing Davidson (Lionel Shriver’s editor) observed, Liana could have just as well been a man. I agree that a man could have worked. But as a woman, I enjoyed the vicarious risk-taking, the gender-bending, more in a woman.
I also liked the way the story reminded me of any number of women whom I admire: the ones who just do impossible things, like decide to marry a man who’s twenty years older, or learn to fly helicopters, or major in math, or have five children, or build a house with your own hands, or move to Nigeria for good. (My friends, all.) Here’s the thing about people like this. Like Shriver suggests, it doesn’t just stop there. Hike the Appalachian Trail at 20, hike the Grand Canyon at 60. Kilifi Creek is about the innocent nonsense of risk-taking, about how life, especially for some people, is basically about risk-taking, start to finish.
(Well, it’s also about how growing up may require a sense of death’s possibility.)
The story reminds me of Henry James. (Really good stories often remind me of Henry James.) Daisy Miller is the first beautiful reckless innocent abroad (leaving aside the real-life Margaret Fuller) — and her risk-taking is disastrous. Both Liana and Daisy compel our admiration, even when we are saying, no, no, no! They wouldn’t listen anyway, and that’s what we like about them.
Last week’s New Yorker ran a riveting article about real-life risk-taking: “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” by Ariel Levy. But this piece was a stark contrast to Shriver’s. While Shriver’s story had a neat rightness to it, Levy’s memoir was a terrifying account of an adventure that was also so sad that I cannot think of it without shuddering. Levy had lived a life of reporting from exotic places, and she made an almost fatal decision to travel to Mongolia while five months pregnant. Her losses from this last adventure will be with her forever. One gruesome night in a Mongolian hotel, she miscarried her way-too-premature infant, watched it be alive and watched it die and then swaddled it, then lost it at the hospital, all the while threatening to bleed out herself. Her husband divorced her not too long after she got home. The story is riveting, true, and unbearable. Lionel Shriver’s is more of an entertainment, involving success, the swish of wealth, the power of youth, the fun of it. I read Shriver’s and I agree — being alive is often a very wonderful, very risky business. Reading Levy, I am overwhelmed at the not-rightness of how in one night, because of one decision, you can lose everything.
Both women were in unfamiliar territory and were really enjoying the adventure and power that comes from mastering the challenges. But in the rush of it, they both made near-fatal mistakes. That happened to a college acquaintance of mine: beautiful, wildly successful, she fell from a mountain on a remote island in the Pacific and died. Just like that.
All that beauty, promise, success, and accomplishment, (she was a headliner) gone with one misstep. Years later, I still feel the loss.