Book Review: THIS RIVER AWAKENS by Steven Erikson

thisriverawakens-usIt’s 1971. Owen Brand and his family move to the riverside town of Middlecross in an attempt to escape poverty. For the twelve-year-old, it’s the chance for a new life and an end to his family’s isolation. Owen falls in with a gang of three local boys and forms a strong bond with Jennifer, the rebellious daughter of a violent, alcoholic father. As summer brings the school term to an end, two figures preside over the boys’ activities: Walter Gribbs, a benign old watchman at the yacht club, and Hodgson Fisk, a vindictive farmer tormented by his past. Then the boys stumble on a body washed up on the riverbank—a discovery whose reverberations will result, as the year comes full circle, in a cataclysm that envelops them all.

This River Awakens was originally published under the name Steve Ludin and has now been released for the first time in the USA by Tor Books under the author’s better known name of Steven Erikson, acclaimed writer of the Malazan Books of the Fallen series. In its own way, This River Awakens is every bit as dark as Erikson’s fantasy novels. It also experiments with mainstream fiction in much the same way as the Malazan books experiment with the tropes of fantasy.

On the one hand, we have that common enough first novel framing device: the coming of age tale. But where it parts company with The Catcher in the Rye and its ilk, is partly because of its uncompromising subject matter, which includes child abuse, wife beating and animal torture, and partly because of its structural experimentation. Here we have both first and third person narratives, a character who only makes an appearance near the end of the book, and a mixture of poetic and more straightforward language. Not only that, but we also have one character, a new teacher, who does not appear until very late on in the narrative.

The rite of passage doesn’t solely relate to the main character, either. Many of the characters undergo their own trials by fire, and emerge at the other side changed, or not, depending on your reading of the tale.

A novel that was initially hard to get into, and merits as slow reading, proved to be highly rewarding ultimately. On so many levels. First one can enjoy the language for its own sake, the many lyrical passages positively pulsing with energy and vividness. Second, the empathy we can feel for the characters, even the worst of them. The most appalling of the protagonists are fleshed out in enough detail so that their behavior, while not excusable, is at least understandable. It is a gift of the author to make each and every one of his characters as real as life.

The storyline about the washed up body has echoes of the Stephen King tale which was filmed as Stand by Me. Though what Erikson does here is rather different, not only in intent, but also in execution and in the outcome.

The novel has its tender moments, too, such as the burgeoning relationship between Owen and Jennifer, and Owen’s bond with Walter. In one memorable section, Owen takes a boat trip with Walter and describes what he is seeing to compensate for Walter’s failing eyesight:

‘Birds,’ Owen said again. ‘They’re everywhere. They talk for the world. They talk with their voices for every tree they find. They talk the distance between trees, with their voices and with their wings. They scream when against the blue background. But when we’re on the river, they’re silent.’

Beautiful passages like this abound, a beauty heightened by the savage darknesss that penetrates every corner of Owen’s world.

In some respects the drama seems over the top in terms of how much abuse and torture is inflicted on both humans and animals in the space of a single narrative. On the other hand, had the novel been marketed as horror, no one would have blinked an eye, myself least of all. Perhaps it relates to our expectations of mainstream “literary” novel (my quotation marks), which Erikson undermines left and right. But as someone who finds labels problematic, this book certainly challenged my own precepts. So, for that reason alone, I have to applaud Mr. Erikson. In the fantasy genre he is on record as a postmodernist. So why shouldn’t he be the same in the mainstream?

In This River Awakens you’ll find the roots of Erikson’s dark fantasy works. And while it is neither fantasy nor horror as far as those labels go it certainly has, at least on a spiritual level, elements of both.


John Dodds Article by John Dodds

John Dodds is the author of The Kendrick Chronicles crime novels (Bone Machines and Kali’s Kiss ) and, under a pseudonym, JT Macleod, has written a collection of historical/paranormal/erotic/romance stories calledWarriors and Wenches, as well as the first novel in YA steampunk superhero series which he is shopping around agents. He is also a blogger for Amazing Stories.

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