Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Riverman (Aaron Starmer)

Aaron Starmer's The Riverman really snaked its way into me. I was totally caught my surprise and before I knew what was happening, the book had wrapped itself around my heart and started squeezing me. Wow.

Alistair Cleary is a pretty normal boy living in a normal 1970s town. His neighbor, Fiona Loomis, is a little weird, and everyone knows it. One day, she asks him to write her biography, saying that she is thirteen despite only having had 12 birthdays. Alistair, with an eye for a good story, is intrigued and agrees. The story she tells him is strange--there is a magical world, Aquavania, that she has been called to over and over since her childhood, one where the only rules are her own, where she can stay as long as she likes but never ages physically.

She can create anything she'd like, and she does. Fiona discovers that other children inhabit worlds of their own that border hers, and that one by one they are disappearing as an entity called The Riverman enters their creations and steals their souls. She's scared and alone and she needs Alistair. The only problem for him is that he doesn't believe her. He's convinced that this is all an elaborate cover story for her problems at home but, concerned for her welfare, he continues listening to her tale.

The novel is about so many other things, though. It's about being a kid and going through weird stuff. It's about hiding and secrets. I really dislike making comparisons, but this book reminded me in all the right ways of The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Black Swan Green, and that's no small compliment; Gaiman and Mitchell are two of my favorite authors, and Starmer holds his own and gleams just as brightly with these two luminaries. The idea of these secret fantasy worlds we use to regularize the world around us, and about the observations of a child as he grows up, are pitch-perfect. Delightful.

Alistair is an engaging narrator--he never sounds too precocious or pretentious. He doesn't believe Fiona's story, but his doubts and questioning feel natural: he never slips into "annoying acceptance mode" where he tells us over and over how it's impossible, but demonstrates very realistic empathy and concern for this girl who is kind of weird and friendless. Fiona, too, is a stunning character, trusting and patient and frightened. You can almost feel the panic bubbling underneath her calm.

The Riverman strikes a great balance between action and character development, and that's one of the things that so charmed me. Of course we all want to know about Aquavania and the soul-stealer, and we get that in spades, but Starmer also works in little scenes that teach us more about our narrator and his supporting cast, too--dates and dangerous games and ditching school, interludes that maybe hold off the next snippet of our Aquavania narrative but that nonetheless are rich in their explanation of the novel's players.

Starmer gets a lot right about childhood. Alistair remembers being friends with Fiona when they were much younger, but now that they're twelve, they can't possibly get along. They're on different planets. Kids are dumb, and the author highlights it without ever shoving it in our faces. There's looking up to people who are bad, fear of disappointing your parents, and that slow-burning guilt of trying to shake off someone who just won't leave you alone.

This novel is the first in a planned trilogy, and the ending does a good job of being suspenseful without being overdramatic, and twisty but not in a way that is illogical. It sets itself up well for the two future volumes, and I can hardly wait to read them. The Riverman is really complex and managed to surprise me all the time. I'm eager to see where it takes me next.

My rating: 5/5
The Riverman on Goodreads
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