Is a Brit named, John Dyson. He’s a longtime writer for “Reader’s Digest” and author of twenty-something books. He’s also, in my opinion, one of the finest living writers I know. Not one to sugarcoat, he sent me his review this morning for River. Good stuff.
Meeting the Sea
I spotted this book on top of the pile by my wife’s suitcase. “Holiday reading,” she said, having been stocking up with books for our beach holiday with grandchildren. “You always like boaty things.” True. I riffled through the pages and words jumping out at me painted a picture of just the kind of adventure I might dream of. Cut-off jeans… Tree frogs… Gators… Blisters… Canoe… Moon… Fish house… Eggs cooking on the fire…
Hmm. Huck Finn in a different century? Or an updated Deliverance? But my heart sank when I spotted the strap on the cover : How far would you go for love? Oh no! One of those.
I blurred through the pages once more, slower this time, and the phrases catching my eye suggested something different again. Blood trailed behind us… “I do…” Her lymph nodes suggest… Then they shot Chernobyl into my wife.
And one both poignant and eloquent: Let the river take you, I’ll be waiting…
This piqued my interest but did I really want to read a book about cancer? Even if it did have canoes and tree-frogs in it? And while I’m on holiday?
I glanced at the colour picture of author Charles Martin inside the front cover. Cool in jeans, t-shirt and sports coat. A hearty and strong-looking figure who might know about a river. But would such a young writer have the ballast to deal sensibly with the gut-wrenching devastation of cancer?
Intrigued, I sat on the bed and skimmed the writer’s initial casts of his line. Fatal error! In a few pages I had his hook jagged in my throat and the story was reeling me in. No matter which way I jigged, it drew me deeper. Time and again it gave me just enough line to think I was in control, that I could turn over and get some sleep. Then the pressure came on with a neat segue into the next chapter and I was again in the grip of an irresistable narrative, racing on.
To close the book and switch off the light was unthinkable. I might as well have tried to swim up Niagara Falls.
Where the River Ends is a vivid and multi-layered story, well told and beautifully written. It’s a triumph because it cleverly pitches an exciting story on a dangerous knife-edge: never (quite) cheesy, never (quite) sentimental, just plain captivating. At the moment you dread that this could become pathetically Hollywood, the author jerks his line and you take off in an entirely new direction. It’s a book of restless and relentless spirit.
The threads are neatly fused but each could stand in its own right as a classic of its genre. The river journey: meticulously observed and sympathetically told by a writer who has been there and got his trousers wet. The love story: a rich dish with natural fresh ingredients, intense organic flavours, artificial flavourings and sweeteners wholly absent. The man-hunt: tense, under-stated, page-turning.
The terminal disease: Brilliantly told, fearlessly confronted and utterly compelling. From the beginning you are as helplessly gripped as flotsam in the fierce current of a great story. The author applies to delicate sentiments and inner thoughts the same strength with which he forces a paddle through the water. Awkward issues are faced down and nothing is left hidden under stones along the way. You do not weep but sometimes you chuckle. You do not gaze with pity at the beautiful woman in the canoe, you celebrate with her. You see dying as part of living and it is not frightening.
And you begin to understand why – as Charles Martin describes in his acknowledgments – he was so drained by the writing of this book that when he finished it he and his wife couldn’t have a proper conversation for a week. Only a week? It left me as wrung out as the old rag with which the author probably cleans his truck.
This is a wonderful book. Pure and unadulterated, the dialogue blasts along like white water racing between mossy stones. Characters stride with wet feet and swollen mosquito bites straight out of the pages. Though lightly sprinkled, its insights are wise and memorable. I haven’t read a book straight through for many years, but I did this one.
Now I need that holiday.