SANDRA LEIGH PRICE The River Sings. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren
The author of The Bird’s Child returns with the story of a Romany girl forced to live by her wits when her father is transported to Australia.
In the opening chapter of The River Sings, it’s 1819 and Patrin, a young Romany woman, is giving birth to her first child by the bank of a river. When the labour becomes difficult, Patrin’s mother helps her walk into the water, where her child is born, its skin blue and her umbilical cord ‘like a coral necklace’ around her neck. Together, Patrin and her mother coax the little girl into life. Amberline, the baby’s father, names the child after his mother: Eglantine.
The turn of a page and it’s 1825. Eglantine is a little lady living with her father in London in an enormous, damp old manor by the Thames. Amberline is a gentleman now – an elegant, enigmatic man of fine clothes and unpredictable moods. Eglantine loves her father dearly. She has never known her mother. When she tries to think of her, all she can hear is the sound of the river rushing in her ears.
Alternating between the perspectives of Patrin and Eglantine, we learn how Patrin met Amberline, a surly but handsome Rom with shiny boots but no knowledge of his own people or their ways. At the same time, we watch Eglantine as she grows older and her father begins to teach her his trade:
[H]e peeled open my fist, examining the length of my fingers. ‘Your inheritance is in your hands, just like mine.’ My father dropped my hands and I watched in wonder as he proceeded to pull out and name jewels from my hair, my neck, my sleeve with his sleight of hand – diamond, ruby, sapphire, amethyst, tourmaline, pearl – their names incantations. I reached my hand in to touch one but my father brushed away my fingers.
‘Who owns these jewels?’ I said.
‘People who didn’t take care of them well enough. Pick one, whatever catches your fancy.’
Suddenly, Eglantine understands that the games her father has played with her for years – games where she’d pluck a handkerchief or a watch from his pocket without him realising – were designed to train her as a pickpocket, just like him. Eglantine, like her father, has always been drawn to things that shine. To her secret horror, her father is right – she has a natural talent for picking pockets.
When Amberline is caught stealing a silver rattle from a baby and is transported to Australia as a convict, Eglantine, now in her teens, becomes a thief, picking the pockets of the rich to survive. It’s all she knows. But without her father to keep her from the truth, she begins to uncover the secrets of her past, which in turn, helps her realise that she has the power to choose her own future.
It’s impossible not to be charmed by The River Sings. It’s Sandra Leigh Price’s second novel, and it’s the story of a mother and daughter, separated by time but bound together by Romany blood and the river that flows through both of their lives. Chapter by enticing chapter, Price slowly reveals the series of events that have kept Eglantine and Patrin apart for so long – and fills us with the hope that they might one day be together again.
Novels told from two or more perspectives can sometimes suffer from a sense of unevenness, but that’s certainly not the case here. Price’s structure is simple and perfect, with Patrin and Eglantine’s stories entwined in a way that allows both narratives to unfurl, slowly revealing the sadness that sits at the novel’s heart. It’s fitting that for a novel in which the river plays such a large part, the narrative flows in a way that feels completely natural.
The River Sings is brought to life by Price’s rich imagery, which makes this novel feel like a whole world of its own. Rivers and water appear frequently in The River Sings, but not always in a way that is expected – like the rising water from the Thames that fills the basement of Eglantine’s home in London, for instance, or the river water that pours from the pockets of a would-be thief.
This is a novel that’s replete with things that shine – the beguiling shine of jewels and silver, certainly, but also the shine of new possibilities, and the promise of a fresh beginning, washed clean and ready to face the world anew. The River Sings is about tradition: the bonds that tie families together, but also the loosing of these ties and choosing your own destiny. It’s not only about making mistakes, but also making peace with those mistakes.
The River Sings has so much to say, and it doesn’t let the incredible amount of research that surely must have gone into its creation get in the way. It’s sprightly and elaborate – and it flirts with the works of Charles Dickens in a way that’s startlingly clever. It’s Oliver Twist with a feminist twist; Great Expectations remixed.
Other critics have struggled to fit The River Sings – and Price’s writing in general – into a genre, suggesting it’s everything from fantasy to historical fiction to romance. I’m not so concerned with genre. It’s not important. However you label The River Sings, it’s unique; a richly imaginative work of literary fiction that sparkles with sheer joy.
Sandra Leigh Price The River Sings HarperCollins 2017 PB 320pp $32.99
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