The family drama of Donna Milner's sweet, forgiving After River sweeps you away in its everyday life on a dairy farm in the beautiful East Kootenays. The story of the Wards, who come to accept a draft dodger named River into their lives, into their homes, until the book's fateful event tears them apart, rambles over thirty-five years through terrain well-told throughout Canadian literary history. Family novels told by Canadian women are a popular kind, and Milner has set herself up in line with no shortage of excellent company. The novel, with its strains of Crow Lake and Unless, feels familiar and unknown at the same time. A compelling tale that overcomes its stereotypical beginnings to crash into an uplifting end, After River came as a bit of surprise.
As Natalie Ward tells the story of how her life changed after River, the unbelievably handsome and utterly compelling young American came into it, she cannot do so without giving the reader the whole picture. River just didn't come into Natalie's life, he came into her whole family, and his presence changed everything. Like the water of his nickname, he slipped into their land and made himself as essential as the air or the cows themselves. For Natalie, and her eldest brother Boyer, River represents that instant when your childhood leaves forever, a burgeoning adulthood that comes with the cost of happiness, and how rich the price of forgiveness remains when conflict goes unresolved.
The setting swept me away as much as the story: a farm set on rich, fertile land, a town trapped in its own small mind and an even smaller belief structure, all trapped (or set free depending on how you look at it) by the mountains that tower above. A highly personal story, it's impossible not to feel empathetic with the events of Natalie's life, nor is it easy to watch her make the mistakes she's bound to make, or feel the weight of the guilt she carries away the moment she leaves the farm.
The prose isn't perfect, and there are first-novel moments all over the book, tired descriptions and worn out metaphors, but none of that matters by the end, when Natalie's life comes full circle, and the book comes to its pitch perfect end. Isn't it always the case that we end up so far from where we begin, only to come home in so many ways, whether literal or metaphorical, despite how strong the pull of life drags you in another direction.
READING CHALLENGES: I had chosen Stanley Park as my book for British Columbia, but I'm swapping in this book instead. I'll probably still read it, but I feel like this story and setting are just so evocative that I could see the mist rising up from the mountains in the dewy mornings and feel every inch of Natalie's pain, which means it's the right choice for The Canadian Book Challenge. It's such a Canadian novel, this After River.
PHOTO IN CONTEXT: As I read a terribly practical but not entirely gorgeous ARC, I'm showing off the glorious cover. I know it might not be for everyone, but it perfectly suits the story, and the colours are just so lovely.
As with so many of my ARCS, here we go again...would anyone like me to pass this one along?