4 out of 4 stars
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What the River Wants by Arthur Byrd is a pensive family-focused novel about members of different generations seeking to define their role within their family, and in the larger world. The story follows the life of Tom, a cantankerous and stubborn older man who has distanced himself from his family and spends his days in an off-the-grid cabin by a river, in a remote part of Mississippi. After a visit from Lee, his teenage grandson, Tom reluctantly re-establishes contact with the other members of his family, though the process is stilted and difficult. As we meet the other members of the family, we get a glimpse into each of their worlds, and the way their interactions with Tom shape their understanding of their mutual family history.
Through the process of discussing family stories and memories, Tom begins to process and remember parts of his own earlier life, particularly those involving his now-deceased wife. At the same time, he is forced to confront the memory of an old friend who betrayed him, as that friend returns and attempts to make contact. Rather than relying on his family for comfort and support, Tom keeps them at a distance, partially from habit, and partially due to a fear that they will discover that he is soon to be evicted from his land and beloved cabin. He is a man who desires only to rely upon himself, and as we follow his story we watch him struggle with the realization that he may no longer be able to do this.
There are several surprising and intriguing twists, which contribute significantly to the fluid pace of the story. Though this novel is highly psychological, with quite a bit of text devoted to the exploration of one’s inner struggles and ambivalences, the plot nonetheless progresses rapidly through a series of interesting events, and the narrative never feels too dense or heavy to move forward. One of the major themes is that it is the core of a person that really matters, rather than the details or “extremities.” In other words, a person (like Tom) may have many secrets, and many parts of him or herself that are hidden from others, yet the heart and essence of their personality may still be good, which is what is important.
This is a book rich with life, and each character has a vibrant and believable back-story. Several of the characters made significant emotional progress throughout the timeframe and as a result of the events that take place. This is a story that will make a reader think, as the characters themselves are forced to confront issues of mortality, and the nuances and ambiguities of life.
I rate this book 4 out of 4 stars, and recommend it to those who like stories that burn slowly at first, but come to a significant, emotional, and memorable ending. I would also recommend this book to those who enjoy exploring family dynamics and relationships or are simply looking for a glimpse into family life in southern Mississippi. Some readers may find this book a bit slow, especially at first, as it is a story that requires patience. However, many of the lessons of this book are in the atmosphere rather than the action, and the atmosphere of the river setting permeates the entire novel consistently and memorably.
What the River Wants
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