If Hokey Pokey and Far Far Away had a book baby, it would be The Riverman by Aaron Starmer. With one big exception, I actually liked the characters in The Riverman, which means I was invested. In the end I was torn between my liking for the characters and appreciation of the prose and some issues I had with the plot and setting. Despite my reservations it is a dark haunting tale that is beautifully written.
(I received an ARC from publisher in exchange for a fair review)
Fiona Loomis is Alice, back from Wonderland. She is Lucy, returned from Narnia. She is Coraline, home from the Other World. She is the girl we read about in storybooks, but here's the difference: She is real.
Twelve-year-old Alistair Cleary is her neighbor in a town where everyone knows each other. One afternoon, Fiona shows up at Alistair's doorstep with a strange proposition. She wants him to write her biography. What begins as an odd vanity project gradually turns into a frightening glimpse into a clearly troubled mind. For Fiona tells Alistair a secret. In her basement there's a gateway and it leads to the magical world of Aquavania, the place where stories are born. In Aquavania, there's a creature called the Riverman and he's stealing the souls of children. Fiona's soul could be next.
Alistair has a choice. He can believe her, or he can believe something else...something even more terrifying.
Alistair and Fiona are kids on the brink. On the brink of leaving their childhoods behind. On the brink of discovering each other. On the brink of oncoming sadness and disaster. Fiona desperately needs someone to listen to her and she chooses Alistair. The more he listens to her the more Alistair needs her to be okay. The more he needs to be the one to make her okay. To be her hero. She is elusive. He reads things into her story and draws his own conclusions about what she is saying. And then acts on them. The predictable disasters ensue (and some not so predictable ones as well). I thought they were at the perfect age to tell a story such as this. There was an underlying tension in their relationship, but they conducted it while riding bikes, sitting near a rock, and talking on swings. It is a hard to reach balance in a book with such dark undertones, but Starmer finessed it well. Fiona is terrified of The Riverman in her fantasy world, who is stealing other kids and making them disappear. Her fear is so real and it leads Alistair to desperately want to figure out what reality she is substituting her fantasy for. Who is the Riverman really? This book is about both their journeys of discovery and loss. There were times when I felt Alistair's voice sounded too mature and world weary in contrast to how he acted and actually spoke. That was explained at the end though. Sort of. I think. (More on that confusion in a moment.)
The prose and imagery Starmer uses is excellent. The descriptions bring everything to life. And there are some gems of philosophy hidden as well, but not in a way that is pretentious or obnoxious. It's done in a way that will work for the intended audience I think. The mystery of Fiona's world and how it overlaps the real world kept me turning pages. I knew the identity of the Riverman almost from the beginning, but I don't think kids will. (And it didn't temper my enjoyment of watching Alistair get there.)
My enjoyment was not without some serious reservations though. One of those was the length of some of the scenes and how unimportant things were drawn out. An example of this was Halloween which took up three chapters and a whole lot of detail when only one small section of it really advanced the plot, or even spoke to character development. That whole sequence felt more like a nostalgic look back at the awesome fun of neighborhood Halloween. I was bored. I laughed when I hit this particular line not even halfway through the book because it was so descriptive of my own feelings reading the book:
Stories taunted me. Even ones I didn't believe dared me to see them through to the end. The idea of Aquavania was absurd, but Fiona's fear seemed so real. I suspected that the end of her tale would reveal the true source of that fear, and I hated her for roping me in, but I hated myself even more for letting her drag me along. Because the tension-the not knowing-was unbearable. Why can't someone spoil the ending for me? I thought.
Ironic. Probably unintentional.
The other element that bothered by was the time period. It is set in 1989 and I can't see any good reason why except that it conveniently go rid of all modern technology. Or possibly this was also part of the nostalgia of the author.
Most of all however, the end bothered me. I don't mind ambiguous or open endings. I don't need perfect closure. What I do need is for the end to make some kind of sense. To give me something. This book reminded me a lot of the TV show Lost. Great concept, excellent set-up, characters that were intriguing and made you want to see them make it, but then it went on a little too long until the original vision was lost and there was nothing to do but end it in a confusing and completely unfulfilling way. I've seen a lot of people say they thought it was brilliant and mind-blowing. To me it felt like a bit of a cop-out.
I would certainly recommend this to readers who like books that blur the line between fantasy and reality. And don't mind lack of closure. I would be careful about handing it to younger MG readers. This is one where you should know the content and the potential readers if they are younger than 12.
I read an ARC of The Riverman received from the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, via NetGalley.