Lionel Shriver: “Kilifi Creek”

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.

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Betsy

“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.

27 thoughts on “Lionel Shriver: “Kilifi Creek””

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Haven’t read the story yet: on Shriver’s wider work I’d say Big Brother was one of the more surprising things I’ve read thus far this year. I think she’s under-rated and cleverly marketed as a supermarket shelf novelist: her themes shift units but I think the content is worth a little more than those pretty awful covers might suggest.

  2. avataram says:

    One possible reason Shriver does not get good reviews is because for a long time she was the Book Critic for The Economist, and used to tear apart books and authors she did not like. I remember a review of one of Jeanette Winterson’s books, where she said Winterson’s readers could do with “less of her gnomic dialogue and sonorous commentary”, and that set Winterson into trashing the latest book by Shriver book in a review or her monthly column.

    For many years, I did not read any Shriver, as I sided with Winterson. But coming after what has just happened in the New Yorker, any original story by an established author is welcome, and I definitely plan to read this one.

  3. Trevor says:

    I’m glad to have your good opinion on here, Lee. I’ve never read Shriver, but I’ve always had the impression her pieces were lauded for “timeliness” when really they’re just polemics about something in the news: shootings, health care, etc. I know you’re sensitive to such things, so I’m sure I’m wrong.

    The first clause in her story, though. UGH!

    It was a brand of imposition of which young people like Liana thought nothing: [. . .]

    I don’t know if it is was Winston Churchill or not who said “up with which I will not put,” but I can’t stand the mangled sentences that come from strict adherence to the antiquated grammar rule that you cannot end with a preposition.

    Sorry, I’ll go back to the story and forget about this.

  4. Archer says:

    I’ve read WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN and THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD by Shriver, and I have to admit I loathed both books. To me, she’s like a moderately higher-brow Jodi Picoult, a writer who uses ripped-from-the-headlines premises and turns them into hackneyed melodrama.

    Also, from what I remember, that sentence Trevor picked out is indicative of her prose style in general: needlessly ornate, like she’s writing a Victorian novel or something. I was actually rather alarmed when I saw TNY would be publishing her for the first time. (With that and the Okparanta controversy swirling, I don’t know what to think of the magazine anymore!)

    All that said, I have read a number of viewpoints like Lee’s: that there’s more to Shriver’s books than meets the eye. Maybe I should give her another try…

  5. avataram says:

    I just read it and I am sorry I did. Even remember the news item it was based on. Definitely one of the worst writers on the planet.

  6. Lee Monks says:

    Well, Trevor, it’s a distinct possibility that I have a weakness for vaguely amusing zeitgeist stuff – I am similarly susceptible to the likes of Junot Diaz as you know…

    I have to say that the example you offer up there made me wince. I may have to consider this blind spot I have more fully…

  7. avataram says:

    Itching to spoil it for everyone by posting the news item on which this “story” is based. But will wait for everyone’s comments. The writer of the news item, J David Goodman of the NYT, is a far better writer than Lionel Shriver will ever be.

  8. Steven says:

    Joke: Are you accusing Shriver of plagiarism too? So it was plagiarized from a news item?

  9. avataram says:

    No.

  10. Betsy says:

    Trevor – gentlemen – I stand by my review! I really enjoyed the story, couldn’t put it down. That first sentence, I agree, was a hurdle. Even so – despite it, I enjoyed this story.

  11. avataram says:

    Here is the NYT article: http://nyti.ms/15g1URM

    Likely to be the inspiration – First date, and when she leaned against the railing, the date asked if she felt safe, sitting there.

    The trouble with Shriver is – one is always playing the game of “which news item is this about” and in this case, one could guess as soon as Liana went on the rooftop with a date that this was the one.

  12. Betsy says:

    avataram – Thanks for the link to the Goodman article about the woman who fell to her death from a Manhattan balcony last spring. You’re right – well written.

    Your preference for Goodman over Shriver is clear! Archer seconds you when he states an unequivocal distaste for Shriver’s style, as a branch of Jodi Picoult.

    I won’t argue with either of you about your preference.

    I would argue, however, that everyone has their reading weathers. The beach and open heart surgery require different genres.

    For a certain time of day, or after a bout of bad weather, Shriver suits me. I would say that when I sat down to read her story Monday morning, for me, her story was welcome.

    There have been times (on the airplane) I found Gigi Grazer better company than Jonathan Franzen, and Picoult easier company than Faulkner. (But I recently re-read Faulkner and went to Oxford.) I adore Flannery O’Connor, but she’s not who I choose for the week my grandson is having open heart heart surgery..

    For Marilynne Robinson or Alice Munro I require peace, quiet and somewhere to write, as well as time to concentrate. And I have to have the energy for the focus that is their due and that I live for.

    I guess I divide writers into the ones I read lying down and the ones I read at my desk and I require both.

    My husband, a devourer of biography, John Keegan, anything deeply researched on economics and history, prefers Dave Barry and detectives as his go-to light reading. Peter Bowen is his current favorite.

    Because he and I differ so much in our reading preferences (and meet in the middle with David Lodge and Alison Lurie), I’m assuming there are always these divisions.

    So! Avataram and Archer – I’m curious what lighter writers appeal to you. I could use some new names beside Peter Bowen.

  13. Paul Epstein says:

    Unimpressed, I’m afraid. She didn’t die in the creek. She did die in an accident 12 years later (or thereabouts). So what? Yes, there are good characterizations and descriptions of the landscape, but nothing in this story rises above mere competence. It’s unthinkable to me that this would have been published if the author wasn’t a literary celebrity, and wasn’t a regular New Yorker writer.

    Paul Epstein

  14. Archer says:

    Betsy, I’m with you about reading weathers. I love a great many books that I would not take to the beach.

    I generally don’t do a lot of “light” reading, but that’s mainly because the writing in many of those books is often second-rate. I also don’t read much genre, which can be an escape even for the most literary-minded (Toni Morrison has said that the only thing she can read when working on a novel is P.D. James mysteries). That said, I’ve recently discovered Ursula K. Le Guin on someone’s recommendation, and I’ve been enjoying it. Some Stephen King isn’t bad either.

    I also think so-called literary fiction can be very enjoyable, in the most basic sense. I’ve devoured a Kazuo Ishiguro novel in one sitting. Jennifer Egan strikes me as a writer who prioritizes readability as highly as innovation. Some Margaret Atwood books have been as gripping to me as any page-turner.

  15. Betsy says:

    Great list, Archer. Jennifer Egan is indeed a page – turner. I need a book for traveling next week, and Kazuo Ishiguro has been on my list for a long time. Thanks for that. And I like being reminded of Margaret Atwood.

    Thanks for that kind note about Toni Morrison. I feel in good company – though I can’t imagine her reading a Gigi Grazer.

  16. avataram says:

    Hardly in a position to suggest anything to Betsy or Trevor. I read the blog to find out who to read. Trying to just list what I read in 2013.

    I moved to the US from Spain recently. I miss the weekly columns by people like Mario Vargas Llosa and Javier Marias in the El Pais. The best writers seem to crime reporters, like Goodman. The New Yorker is a lifesaver, each article just enough to read during the hour long commute to the city.

    Other than that, have been on the M shelf all year – Marias, Munro, Millhauser, Mueenuddin, Miller (essays like Stand Still like the Hummingbird) with occasional forays to the B shelf – Borges, Bolaño. Bolaño’s “The Return” was wonderful, somehow missed it earlier. As was Millhauser’s “We Others”.

    Have been trying the 20 under 40 authors of TNY – always liked Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Daniel Alarcon and Gary Shteyngart are very good, Nicole Krauss’s “History of Love” was very good, Nell Freudenberger’s “The Newlyweds” disappointing. Wells Tower wrote a very funny first story in “Everything ravaged, Everything burned” but the rest of it was not as good. Not sure if Junot Diaz was included in the list – he is funny, but a bit repetitive.

    For light reading, I really like Manuel Vazquez Montalban’s Pepe Carvalho novels. The detective work is sloppy, but the gastronomy is brilliant. Remain faithful to the under-rated Philip Kerr, who wrote the brilliant Berlin Trilogy and “A Philosophical Investigation” but his latest novels have been disappointing.

  17. Betsy says:

    Great list, Avataram! Thank you!

  18. Roger says:

    I enjoyed this one, too, including Shriver’s arch tone. I thought the swimming scene was intense and the dialogue between Beano and Regent was funny. I found the ending effectively disturbing and was intrigued by the narrative’s observations about how Liana’s scare in the creek, followed by other close calls, diminished her, though still leaving her with enough bravado to sit on that railing.

    I was not aware of the real-life incident that Shriver drew upon to write this story. I can imagine that a reader who was aware of the incident would feel disappointed once Shriver put Liana on the rooftop. Then again, it may not be necessary to be totally surprised by the ending in order to appreciate this story.

    Does Shriver lose originality points by creating a story that leads up to a scene based on a real-life event? Maybe, but then again there is a creativity in imagining an entire story that leads up to that event, especially a story that causes a reader to reflect on how a brush with death can alter one’s character and perspective, and that does so with the style Shriver brought to the page.

  19. Paul says:

    Henry James can get away with sentences like this, but not this author: “Yet midway through this casual mooching off the teeny-tiny-bit-pretentious photographer and her retired safari-guide husband (who likewise seemed rather self-impressed, considering that Liana had already run into a dozen masters of the savanna just like him), Liana entered one eerily elongated window during which her eventual capacity to make sterner judgments of her youthful impositions from the perspective of a more worldly adulthood became imperilled.” Acceptable up until “Liana entered…” at which point it becomes dreadful. How can the NY accept such stuff?

  20. Betsy says:

    Right on, Paul.

    And Henry James did not exactly get away with those sentences, either. When he turned to dictating his work, he was writing some of his most psychologically important work, “The Golden Bowl”, for instance. The medium of dictation seemed to loosen James’ control over his work. Speaking, he lost the immediacy of writing; he lost that on-the-spot writer’s oversight. I feel sure that he will fall out of the pantheon sooner because of those sentences. And that’s a sad thing, because he is brilliant on the psychology of taking possession of oneself, on how difficult it is.

    I feel his influence in Alice Munro’s “Corrie”.

    As for Shriver’s sentence , Paul, I agree. That sentence stopped me cold, too. Its garbled structure mismanages its intent. And to the degree that this whole story has a “Daisy Miller” flavor, I wonder if when I re-read “Daisy Miller”, I won’t find this very sentence, or a portion of it, in James’s text.

    Still, I liked “Kilifi Creek”. Headstrong daredevils and their fate interest me.

    The New Yorker editorial staff appears to be thin on the ground, as the “Benji” episode indicates, and as this sentence indicates as well.

  21. Paul says:

    Paul singled out a sentence he didn’t like. That sentence was part of my favorite paragraph in the story — I liked the story a lot.

    “… Liana entered one eerily elongated window during which her eventual capacity to make sterner judgments of her youthful impositions from the perspective of a more worldly adult became imperiled. A window after which there might be no woman. There might only, ever, have been a girl — remembered, guiltily, uneasily, resentfully, by her aging, unwilling hosts more often than they would have preferred.”

    There might only, ever, have been a girl.

    Beautiful.

  22. Archer says:

    Betsy, interesting that feel that Henry James will fall out of the pantheon. I remember reading somewhere that James is the most studied author in universities (which I found very surprising)! Though, I do think there’s something in what you say about his lack of discipline in the later novels. THE AMBASSADORS, THE WINGS OF THE DOVE and THE GOLDEN BOWL were all written within a year of each other, and they are all long, dense texts. He presumably didn’t spend a lot of time editing or revising. I agree that the sentences are unwieldy, and that you sometimes have to read them again and again to even attempt comprehension. But I love those late novels. Even today, they seem very modern and radical to me.

    It was interesting to see the contrasting opinions of the two Pauls! I personally fall into the camp of the former Paul. I finally read the Shriver story, and did not care for it, especially the language. I hated that sentence, and quite a few others too. Hmm, after seeing that Willing Davidson was the editor of this, as well as “Benji”, I think I’ll be taking a pass on whatever pieces he edits in the future.

    By the way, this is off-topic, but did everyone see the news that three previously unpublished J.D. Salinger stories have leaked online? Now I’m the last person to encourage copyright infringement (especially after the whole Okparanta debate), but if you can’t wait to read them, they are there…

  23. Betsy says:

    Archer – the late Henry James titles you mention are among my all time favorite works. So glad to meet someone who enjoys and respects and treasures these novels as I do.

    I agree – these three novels you mention are radical and contemporary to concerns that we still have 100 years later. I am grateful to James for his vision regarding the importance of selfhood. I hate to think of his novels ever passing out of the canon.

    About his sentences: I have always wanted to examine one of these late novels at the sentence level.

    Hawthorne, whose example James was keenly aware of, could write an immense sentence and still keep perfect control of the syntax. I didn’t have that feeling with James, but I have never examined the sentences in detail.

    Perception is always in question for James. It may be that his sentences are the most difficult and obscure when the character cannot perceive other people clearly. In that case, the difficult sentences are part of the art.

    As for Shriver’s odd sentence – I did love the intent: that if the girl had died, the old couple would have forever had her in mind – but as a girl – not as the woman she could become.

    And I didn’t just like the intent of that sentence, I loved the entire story, partly because I felt it was clearly linked to Daisy Miller.

  24. Ken says:

    I found this cold and bracing and I mean that as a compliment. I like that there is no big lesson or message or moral she learns but “There was nothing else to learn, though that was something to learn, something inchoate and large.” I love that sentence and the finality of ‘there was no almost.” I also found this riveting but thought its bleak tone pushed it over the edge into art. There is much beauty in life and it is also very fragile and that’s about all ye need to know.

  25. j says:

    I wonder if what made this story seem interesting was its superficial elements: the exotic landscape, the sometimes interesting descriptions (as others have noted, there are several tired and overwrought sentences in this story).

    The question I now always bring to a story, though, is this: Why is this story being told? I’m not sure what I’m supposed to feel about Liana, by the conclusion? The death feels like it’s reaching at something in connection to her near-drowning, but I felt pretty cold at the end. I didn’t mind that she died.

    I think with the story, then, it feels weirdly pedantic and arbitrary. I’m not sure Shriver thought carefully with regard to choosing scenes.

  26. Carol says:

    I knew right away that the Shriver story was ‘catalyzed’ from the sad news item about the woman (in her thirties) while on a first date and sitting on the corner of her apt. terrace fell (through some loose fencing?) to her death. I wasn’t sure she just hadn’t lost her balance. I wasn’t sure she was as much of a risk-taker like the protagonist in Kilifi. I think it’s a wonderful idea to take a news item and run with it. Perhaps there was something cathartic emotionally for Shriver to write it. And I think it is well written. This reader did dislike the free loader as presented at the story’s beginning and then when she begins her swim, even before, I felt something ominous. The protag is wearing scanty clothing on the way to her swim and someone drives by. The foreign country she is in doesn’t approve of such dress and she’s been warned about it. Her host discusses it with his wife. Anyhow I thought she would be attacked by an alligator or drowned. But she survives and then dies a decade later in this accident. Who thinks to check the stability of the fence surround fixed into the concrete edge of balcony? Life turns on a dime. (Apologies for cliche last sentence.)

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