After River by Donna Milner was released by Harper Collins Canada on Friday March 28.
It's summer 1966 in British Columbia, a stone's throw from the U.S. border. Fifteen year old Natalie Ward, her parents -Nettie and Gus and her three brothers live on their dairy farm in a secluded valley. Natalie is happiest within the enclave of her family. Their lives seem idyllic, both to themselves and to their friends and neighbours. When the need for a new handyman arises, Nettie hires a young American draft dodger - River Jordan.
"She was expecting him. She wasn't expecting the heartache that would follow like a cold wind".Milner's masterful use of foreshadowing throughout this novel is never overdone, rather it leaves the reader hungering to follow the story. We are tantalized by some future cataclysmic event, that will change the seemingly perfect lives of the Ward family. River Jordan's arrival seems to be the momentum that begins the change.....
After River tells it's story flipping between the past and the present. We relive the past through Natalie and Nettie's memories. In the present it is 2003 and Nettie is dying from cancer. She needs to see Natalie before she dies. Natalie has been estranged from her family for over 25 years.
"The unnamed resentment I carried with me out the door the day I left. I carried it every day, like some animal clinging to my back that wouldn't let go because I kept petting it, stroking it, enjoying the perverse pleasure of letting it hang on".
What could have happened to this family to create such a rift? I will not spoil the book for future readers by detailing the events that lead up to this rift. Rather, I encourage you to experience this hauntingly beautiful book for yourself. Everyone will be able to relate to and reflect on the complexity of family relationships detailed in this amazing first novel.
Milner's writing is quite simply, beautiful.
"My favourite memory is of my father and brothers working in the fields. I carry a mental picture of them drenched in the golden glow of the late summer sun. I keep this precious gem hidden deep in the dark closet of my mind, behind all of life's stored clutter. I take it out rarely, cautiously. Like a fragile object stored in opaque tissue, I unwrap it with slow trepidation. I turn it this way and that, trying to see more, to see beyond the faded edges of memory".
Milner was a real estate agent until her husband encouraged her to start writing. I'm very glad he did. Milner is an important new voice in Canadian literature. This would make a great book club selection.
I loved After River! I grew up in the same era as Milner's fifteen year old protagonist, Natalie Ward, and lived through the war in Vietnam that ripped the US apart.
That war had a profound influence on the person I became as an adult,as it did on Natalie. Its effects reached beyond our border into Canada where this story takes place.
Intolerance and prejudice played a large role in the events in the story, reminding me how far we have come in some important ways in accepting alternative choices people make in life.
I have seldom been so moved my a novel--and I read a lot. Don't miss this one!
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