Book Review: As a River
Note: This book is an ARC given to me by Jaded Ibis Press at AWP19. It will be formally released in September 2019.
As a River by Sion Dayson is a story about family, finding yourself, and learning to forgive. The novel takes inspiration from its title and flows fluidly from past to present and from character to character. Tying it all together is the main character Greer Michaels, who has returned to his hometown of Bannen, Georgia after 16 years away to care for his mother, recently diagnosed with cancer. In his time away Greer has traveled the world, leaving behind not only the small, poverty-stricken town, but a dark secret, and unfinished business. Back at home once more, Greer must decide whether he’ll face the forces that made him run in the first place, or simply play the role of the dutiful son up until the end.
Dayson has done a wonderful job in crafting Greer’s character. Although the novel switches which character’s point of view you’re reading from in a few chapters, Greer himself remains steadfast and so well-written that returning to his point of view never feels jarring or unnatural. As the driving force of the novel, he maintains a good balance of action and inaction. Every time he pauses and lights a cigarette it gives the readers time to pause and think on what just happened.
This care is applied to most of the story’s other characters, but not all. The important characters know they are important, in a sense, and the characters meant to be background archetypes remain nothing more than that. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but it relates to something I noticed about the rest of the book: for all its high points, the story is relatively standard. By this I don’t mean to say the story is bad, only that in moments where there is meant to be dramatic tension because a twist is coming, I felt nothing, as the twist was obvious to me from a mile away.
A large part of this is due to some specific tropes that Dayson employs. Without going into spoiler territory, all I can really say is that As a River didn’t pull any new narrative punches that wow’d me. Is this a bad thing? No—however, it does leave me feeling unchanged. I didn’t finish this novel feeling reborn or enlightened, but again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not every novel aims for those goals. It’s simply a small let down.
Does this mean you shouldn’t read the novel? Not at all. As I stated before Greer is an intriguing character, and those who surround him have their own rich stories. The writing, while initially difficult for me to get in to, smooths out by the second chapter or so. After that it remains sturdy and poetic at times; straightforward yet roundabout in that good old southern way.
There is a lot working for As a River. Even if the story it tells isn’t groundbreaking, it’s good nonetheless, and will be more than enjoyable for readers looking for something casual, almost laid-back, but still able to pack an emotional (if predictable) punch. As a friend of mine said after I described it to her, “it’s a good book for sitting at the beach.”