Childhood death and trauma isn’t a topic I’ve ever delved deep into with my reading habits. As an avid fan of dystopian novels, paired with a bit of magical realism, you could say it was going to be a safe bet I would enjoy the debut novel from Tom Bray, Merging the Drift. It’s almost hard to define exactly what category this novel falls into, as it contains so many wonderful components all weaved together.
Above all, it’s a multi-narrated story that centres on a group of young adults who have all experienced trauma in some way. It opens with Ali — an occupant of ‘the Drift’ — a type of entity where deceased children exist as their adult selves. But they do not exist in the world we all know. They see their adult lives (that they should have had) play out in front of them but yet have no control over its path. It’s an original and thought-provoking construct, to say the least.
In fact, it’s safe to say I’ve never encountered anything like this before. As death was set to be so apparent in this novel, I was pleasantly surprised by how uplifted I felt when finishing the final pages. It tackles many heavy issues — abuse, sexual objectification, the male gaze, and violence, to say the least — but as a reader, you can’t help but leave the book feeling uplifted.
Trigger warning — please don’t continue to read this article (or book) if you are affected by any of the following: alcoholism, sexual assault, estrangement, grief/loss, hallucinations, physical injury & wounds or torture/psychological torture.
Please note — a copy of this book was kindly sent to me by the author in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis and Setting the Scene
At the heart of it all, Merging the Drift is about giving deceased children and opportunity to live some form of life, even if it is played out in an imagined state through the Drift. As someone who lost their brother prematurely just over a year ago, there is a certain type of comfort that came with the idea of this concept.
The story is told through the third-person perspective of four main characters — Danny, Ali, Kitty and Kerri — over the course of a week as their lives gradually intertwine. Each has experienced some suffering, and the reader is treated to explore the human psyche through Bray’s crafty characterisation.
“How much do you know about your death?”
On the morning of his 18th birthday Ali woke up to his family home unusually silent, and deserted. He soon learns that he never lived the childhood he remembers and all his memories up until that point are fake. He is now alone, and an occupant of the Drift, an entity where deceased children coexist as their adult selves, with the ability to view a parallel version of their being in a separate, fictional world, without any influence or control over this life path.
Almost three years on, Ali has settled into a routine, but events from the real world he was taken from as a child begin to impact on the limits of his existence as he develops a strange connection with a fellow occupant seeking an unprecedented truth that surfaces a disturbing past and will forever bind together multiple souls.
Follow Ali and three others over the course of a mind-bending week as each seeks comfort and answers from their existence.”
The story ends nicely by tying up many loose ends but has plenty of room for a sequel. When I interviewed Tom Bray a while ago, he told me he was already working on turning Merging the Drift into a series, so it will be interesting to see how the characters develop.
“MTD does work as a standalone novel, but hopefully, there is enough interest to see what is still to come, especially as book two delves more into deep character connections with strong references to events and repercussions from the first, so you’ll soon see why certain things played out as they did and become very significant.” — Tom Bray
Themes, the Story and Premise
What I loved about this book is that it tackled so many contrasting themes. At the heart of it is suffering and death, but the existence of the Drift makes it possible to see so much hope and come away from it feeling uplifted.
As the story opens with Ali, who died before his 18th birthday, we are immediately plunged into what appears to be a dark world. He soon learns that all his perceived ‘memories’ are fake and that he hasn’t been ‘existing’ and living in the real world.
However, he does soon come to terms with his existence over the novel, especially when he starts developing a connection with another occupant.
Although there are so many elements of magical realism through the use of the Drift and the commentary on a magical form of afterlife for children, I would say this is a character-driven novel due to the use of multiple narrations and the exploration of the human psyche that is played out through inner monologues. As readers, you are firmly inside the heads of the characters you are reading from.
They all have their own problems they are wading through — whether that be difficulties in family life, trauma, relationships or life in Northern working-class England. Intertwined with these human and relatable topics are stunning elements of magical realism such as time travel, distorted memory, perception and course, and the afterlife, which makes it an original and compelling take on death and suffering.
Characters and Execution
The characters in this novel are young, and when navigating relationships or family life, it really shows. Kitty is the embodiment of this, a feisty teenager who has a strained relationship with her mum. Despite these difficulties, Kitty is lucky enough to have Kerri — her Drift guardian of sorts — who is invisible to others. Kerri isn’t afraid of speaking her mind and showing her true colours, but as the novel develops, we soon find out why she behaves like this.
Although I admired Kerri for being a strong, female character, it was Danny who I connected with the most. He had a difficult upbringing with his Mum having cancer and being adopted into a foster family. He is quite the cynic but, throughout the novel, maintains a sense of optimism.
In many ways, he is a typical teenager in the navigation of his relationship with his girlfriend, but throw in a bit of time travel and interference from the Drift, this gets a bit challenging. But he shows a lot of vulnerability as a male character, which I really appreciated.
I have to admit, I found the concept of Kitty/Kerri and Kirsty a bit difficult to get my head around and had trouble remembering who was who throughout the duration of the novel. Ali and Danny probably stood out to me the most as they were more of a separate entity.
Overall, this is a highly unique and compelling novel. There is so much to enjoy as a reader — including the uplifting portrayal of premature death and the rekindling of family relationships. There are many dark moments, as explored with all of the characters, but this demonstrates the strength of these narrators. I enjoyed being inside the heads of multiple characters and how the connection between them was gradually explored.
The concept of the Drift is so original that you naturally feel drawn to it. Despite creating such complex and original characters, I feel that this multi narration technique wasn’t as successful as it could have been. I found myself frequently getting lost and struggling to connect the dots throughout the novel, but I hope with the sequel and the extension of the series, this will be explained better.
Merging the Drift has so much potential, but sometimes the plot gets lost as the connection between characters isn’t entirely self-explanatory. Despite this, I loved how original this story was and how uplifting its portrayal of death and suffering was. I’m excited to see where the series goes and how this afterlife world develops.
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