Saturday, June 8, 2013

The River Witch by Kimberly Brock #review

Title: The River Witch
Author: Kimberly Brock
Publisher: Bell Bridge Books, 2012

One of my favourite authors, Alma Katsu, recommended this book a while ago, and upon reflection, I can see why she did. The River Witch did not turn out quite the way I expected it to (for which I am very grateful), and while I feel the novel could have benefited from having its various arcs tightened, it will nonetheless stay with me for a long time.

Roslyn Byrne is a broken women, an ex-ballerina fallen from grace who’s suffered an accident and a miscarriage—all of which have conspired to drive her into seclusion. When she rents a house in Manny’s Island it is to find healing and a fresh current for her own life. While this is the ultimate result of her sojourn, she also plays a massive part in the lives of the family there. At times I felt she verged on being wangsty and overly self-indulgent in her misery; other times she came across as a bit of a manipulative busy body. I’ll be honest and say I personally didn’t like her at all, but I enjoyed watching her find her feet as she is a compelling narrator.

Damascus lost her mother at a young age, and her father Urey has been distant, leaving much of her upbringing in the hands of her aunt Ivy. All she has left of her mother is an envelope containing pumpkin seeds (those giant ones) and all throughout one summer, she focuses on growing these massive pumpkins in order to find some closure (and direction) in her own young life. She’s a confused, angry young person, but her quiet determination to grow her pumpkins hinted at a resilience and a strength of character beyond the ordinary. Some powerful imagery just there.

Roslyn is renting the old family home where Damascus and her father used to live, and the girl is drawn there and enters a complicated, almost mother-daughter relationship, with Roslyn. Urey is a ghost who hovers at the edges of their lives, somewhat threatening, but also tragic, for his inability to provide an emotional connection with those close to him in the aftermath of his wife’s death.

Brock’s voice is rich and textured. She weaves a wonderful, tactile world with a wealth of imagery; it’s easy to immerse oneself in Manny’s Island and be reluctant to leave. Her description of The Sacred Harp music was fascinating, and led me to do further research into an American cultural tradition I’d never heard of before (go look up the music, there are plenty of fascinating resources online). Magic underpins the milieu, always suggesting that there might be more to the story than one initially expects—haunting; downright eerie at times.

Ultimately this is a story about coming to terms with one’s past, and also people’s expectations and finding one’s own identity, perhaps despite what one thought of others’ expectations. It’s a coming of age story, and a tale of personal alchemy. It’s about accepting the past but not being shackled by it. It’s about burying one’s dead and finding a fresh current. It’s about finding one’s identity. It’s about taking a definite step. The River Witch is rich in symbolism of growth, rebirth and harvesting, and running through it is the inexorable flow of a river. Perhaps to try to look too deeply into this story is to rob it of meaning, and I suspect each of you who go on to reading The River Witch will take with you something slightly different from the telling.

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