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Raging Currents and Still Water
By Alex Carrigan
It's always important to confront the past, no matter how ugly, how bitter, how torturous, and how unpleasant a task that is. It really isn't something that should be spelled out so often, but it's still something that people tend to avoid for various reasons, some justified and some not as much. It means opening yourself to reopen old wounds and allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and while that can be liberating, to others, it's something that's worse than just being numb from the past.
Sion Dayson's forthcoming novel As a River follows Greer, an African-American man in the 1970's as he returns to his hometown to care for his dying mother. There, he meets Ceiley, a teenage neighbor who was supposedly immaculately conceived, and together they try to understand their place in their town and the world at large, namely by confronting the reasons that made him leave the town and the reasons she is left with such vague ideas about her family and history.
The novel explores many themes and recurring elements as Greer and Ceiley try to understand their place in the world. Greer, being in his early 30's, has had to spend more of his life dealing with racism and prejudice, primarily with the forbidden relationship he had in his teens with a white girl named Caroline. The town is divided by a river, with the town segregated by each side of the river. Because of this, the river and water become recurring symbols of Greer's freedom and true self, as it's at the river he meets Caroline and is free to discuss poetry and traveling with her, and it's also water where he finds his escape from the town of Bannen when he sets sail for Europe.
For Ceiley, Bannen is much smaller and restrictive. The river for her isn't a place to be free but a clear dividing line where she is under the thumb of her mother, Esse, and is unable to see much past it. Part of what draws her to Greer is the promise that it's possible to cross the river and leave Bannen behind for a much wider, more expansive, and more accepting world. It's fitting that Ceiley, whose name is short for "Celestial," is more tied with stars and the sky, as she, being younger, has more promise and possibilities for her future than Bannen and her mother can offer, and while she's not able to escape it yet, she has a friend who can show these possibilities to her.
Dayson's book is written in a very simple style, with very little time spent on describing the town or world of the story and more on the characters and their dynamics with one another. Very few characters have scenes by themselves, and often have to isolate themselves to be open with one another about their wants and desires. The times we really get the characters alone are in a few chapters where Dayson writes in the perspective of a character and shows the reader that person's thought process as they think about one of the major characters.
That being said, there are times where As a River feels like it could go a little further. While it's nice to see a focus on the protagonists and their direct world, we don't get a large view of the town or the people in it. The book is just over 200 pages,and if there was maybe an extra 100 or so to go into the characters more or add additional details, the characters and the setting would feel a bit stronger. There are so many opportunities where the setting could further inform the characters and their relationships with one another, and it feels like a shame that the story doesn't go as far as it could with it. There's points where the novel could benefit from expanding on certain characters and events, such as Greer's relationship with a Ghanian woman he met overseas, or even a perspective chapter for Esse.
Despite this, As a River is still a decent read for anyone who wants to read a period drama about family, identity, and overcoming past trauma. Dayson has a unique voice and draws the reader in with such finesse and love for her words and characters that you can't help but keep turning the page to see where the story is going. Like the river in the story, everything flows from one moment to the next, and while it could be easy to simply follow the river along to see where it goes, As a River asks the reader to also take in sights that are along the way. It's one thing to worry about where the story is going and what the answers to the mysteries are, but there's a lot of good character interactions between, so it's worth checking out just to see who the characters are and how they play off one another.
"As a River" by Sion Dayson will be released by Jaded Ibis Press on September 3, 2019.
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