“The landscape of seas and rivers and streams these things were everywhere.” Natasha Carthew has it correct in All Rivers Run Free, her adult novel debut, having previously written a few poetry collections as well as novels for a younger audience. Rivers are a common motif for writers, especially for those who have a penchant for lyricism. Often, it is some specific river that has a muse-like pull for the author, like James Joyce had for the Liffey throughout his works. More recently, Esther Kinsky structured everything around river Lea in her novel. For Carthew, the inspiration is the Tamar in South West England, which runs southward from the north Cornish coast all the way to one of the bays of the English Channel. Not unlike Joyce, Carthew employs a poetic style of writing in the name of more free-flowing language. Examples are in order to give a general sense of the style:
She kept her eye on the cliff edge and trawled it for signs of home some of the structures had been picked apart by wind, as she powered closer she saw most were scattered fallen to ground some trusses and roofs lay dumped in the sand. She looked for chimney smoke but nothing only gobby seagulls remained on the standing flues. The birds shouted down to her warned her to steer clear of the debris it was everywhere things that had fallen into the sea turned the tide into threat but it was too late no going back she stabbed the paddle into the surf she was going on going forward going home.
In a style reminiscent of Eimear McBride (at least in the sense that Carthaw, too, averts the normal placements of commas), All Rivers Run Free tells a disturbing story of Ia Pendilly, a woman confined to a life in a caravan on the north coast, under the threatening presence of his common law husband Bran. Ia remembers only vaguely her past life on the south coast, the one place she truly feels is home, and only gradually learns to question the twisted and violent relationship she is in with Bran. River Tamar is the key to her escape, the passage that connects her tumultuous present in the north with her happier past in the south.
Why a boat ride, why not take the road? Here we come to another peculiarity of the novel. As it happens, the world in this story is in a state of chaos, and the text slowly suggests that we are in an Atwoodian dystopia. There are occasional references to floods, which implies that a natural catastrophe is well under way. At one point, Ia explains to a girl she has saved from drowning:
‘All this land int ours, just bin taken bit by bit, can do what you want without laws. Spose you know something of it wherever you from.’ She looked at the girl to see if she understood. ‘The crash, the collapse or whatever they call it.’ She returned her gaze to the campsite. ‘No tourists, no comins, no goins; all roads is fucked anyhow.’
There are soldiers. Conflicts. Gunshots. Deaths ensue, depicted also on the pages of the novel. In the second half, it becomes quite clear that Carthew does not use the river motif as a mere poetic symbol for the passage of time, or anything of that sensibility. River Tamar is, quite simply, a means to an escape from the oppressive home life in the north, where Ia has been essentially kept as a sex doll and cook, to put it bluntly. All sorts of lyricism give way to a rough, action-packed, and dialogue-driven second half of the story. At points, I am sorry to say, it felt that the story relied too much on the sort of tropes you might see on a Hollywood action film. I find it unnecessary, since Carthew achieves something rather unique in the beginning of the novel. The mysterious, somehow distant yet intriguing atmosphere (“like something lifted from a daydream,” as Ia thinks at one point) at the onset of the story surpasses the latter half.
Yet, there is much inside All Rivers Run Free, things that I have not sufficiently covered here, such as the relationship between Ia and the waif she saved, or the wider implications of the novel’s environmental concerns. (We do need more stories that are as unashamed in their depictions of the kind of future we might inhabit in the future.) The novel’s eluding style ensures that there is plenty to think about afterwards. It is an interesting mixture of the sort of hardcore, innovative literary fiction and more commercial fiction with great readability, a combination you do not see every day. I am eager to see the direction that Carthew takes from here in her future novels.