SPOILER WARNING: This is a hard novel to talk about without divulging some plot and thematic details. I very much recommend you stop here and pick this book up, because it’s fucking fantastic and I don’t want to ruin any of the major surprises in any way. Seriously, go buy this.
I’ve always liked the idea of large-scale unreliability in stories, though my experience with them is few and far between. There are one or two shorter tales I remember reading in college when studying unreliable narrators, but I’ve never actually had the pleasure of reading a full on novel with an unreliable narrator. Well, that is until Fred Strydom’s The Raft.
I have been missing out, because this book is absolutely amazing.
The day everyone on Earth lost their memories is referred to as Day Zero. It was a reset, and one that turned a technologically advanced world into a listless series of communes where people amount to nothing. Those that lead the communes—which remind me of a Jim Jones joint—promise to lead humanity into a new stage of evolution: A New Renaissance is coming! In the meantime, people need to think about community in a simpler way, one that forgoes family ties and materialism. Those are bad.
Oh, and if you try to escape, they’ll shove you on a raft and float you out into the middle of the ocean with nothing to eat except some plants that make you hallucinate.
Kayle Jenner lives in one such commune, and unlike most, his memories are somewhat complete. He had a house with a pair of horses, a wife, a son, and a daughter. He was even happy. A tragic car accident and Day Zero put a stop to that, and now he’s stuck on a beach memorizing a philosophy he doesn’t truly believe and wondering why he can’t stop dreaming of his son, Andy. Should he go find Andy? Can he? Will Andy even remember him?
These questions become Kayle’s main fear as he journeys to find his son, though the reader quickly becomes concerned with bigger questions about reality itself. Kayle’s core memories span his entire life, making him more reliable than anyone else in the commune, though there are blanks and oddities that he cannot account for, such as a mysterious figure named Jack Turning. His dreams too are strange. There’s an orb in the sky, one that has a sentience to it that makes no sense. Kayle dreams of this orb every night, and as it turns out, others are too.
While Kayle rightfully frets about his son and missing wife, we are left wondering how sane he truly is and what kind of supernatural being is affecting the world.
It’s a wonderful setup that turns The Raft into an untrustworthy soup with way more questions than answers. As the novel progresses and the world grows in clarity, the questions grow in number and importance.
And all of the above is only the first layer of unreliability. There are two more as the novel goes on, though I won’t spoil either. I’m sure you can guess one of them though.
The Raft is written in the first-person past perspective, with Kayle telling his story (which is actually a fourth level of unreliability now that I think of it); however, the novel doesn’t confine itself to just Kayle, nor does it always care about his story. As Kayle moves through the world, he encounters plenty of other characters who feel—perhaps supernaturally—compelled to tell them stories from their lives. The result is a series of first-person past shifts that make sense within the novel’s framework while also creating quick connections between the reader and strangers.
It’s absolutely wonderful. The writing is superb, and the all the vignettes within are perfectly executed in what they set out to do. Kayle’s story is compelling in its own right, but I never felt upset when perspective shifted to someone else because I knew I was in for a treat. Be it a little bit of horror, a giant heap of scifi and world building, or a mix of both, each of these chapters could stand alone if need be.
Each story ends with Kayle asking a question, and each time he’s given a little piece of a thematic puzzle. He then continues on, because nothing matters as long as he can find his son.
“Nothing matters” turns out to be one of the big themes of the novel. Even from the get-go The Raft is dark, but as it progresses, it submerges itself into nihilism and the deep-rooted fears that come with that philosophy. This is a bleak book, and there are times when it is outright cruel, both to its characters and the reader.
Towards the late middle of the novel, we begin getting some answers, though I didn’t like them much at first. Thankfully our fourth wave of unreliability hits with such a brutal force that it resets every notion I had about the book.
Mr. Strydom played with my expectations over and over again until I had no idea what was really going on. Even now that I’ve finished the novel, I still don’t know what’s really real and what is imaginary.
In that way, The Raft is probably the first book I’ve read with what a video game would call replayability. I want to go back in and see where things line up now that I know how it ends, because I think I’ll discover some amazing secrets I missed on my first go through.
I know not everyone will appreciate a dark-as-hell book that plays with your mind, but if that mix sounds enjoyable, then you really have to pick this book up. It is downright amazing. The Raft is easily the best book I’ve read this year, and one that I’m not sure will be topped.