River in our blood. […] River our country, our voice. […] River always changing. Never still. […] River bind and shape us all, body and soul. River the skin we wear. […] River our home, only home we know. […] River don’t run in a straight line, ain’t one thing forever. It change course, make itself over. […] I belong to the river and I belong to him and he will do with me as he see fit.
Set in a 1930s Arkansas Riverboat community, the story of Aiyana, a teenage girl denied the right to read and write, demonstrates a strength and tenacious willpower in the face of oppression and inequality. Even though the landscape and time period will be unfamiliar to many readers, Avril Joy skilfully captures the all too well-known prejudices that still ripple through today’s society, an undercurrent that is constantly presenting itself in new guises, but remains the ugly monster of a society with foundations purposefully built on uneven ground.
A beautiful element of this novel is the subtle defiance of women. Whilst they struggle to create autonomy and freedom, the characters demonstrate how even in the most hopeless of times, women do not simply standby and let their selves be owned. Whilst some of the male characters’ actions are abhorrent and unforgivable, and whilst Aiyana is beaten over and over again by her supposed daddy, Floyd, in attempts to break her, she maintains an unwavering determination to better herself and to take control of her life.
They be my tears on the page. The world be made of the word. How my life gonna be worth anything if I don’t read? I ain’t settling for just river child. Be looking for more.
The focalisation of this narrative is crafted with delicate detail as the reader is immersed in Aiyana’s perspective, her voice captured within the very syntax of her words, which at first is challenging to read, but gradually shifts subtly as she learns how to read and write. The narrative shifts perspective now and then to Silas, a character with a backstory evoking similarities to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. This stranger comes into the lives of Aiyana’s family and is later given Aiyana, as if she were a commodity Floyd could exchange for Silas’ silence. These two narratives steadily converge in the present, as Silas ultimately repents for his wrongdoings and Aiyana remains impressively resilient until she can find a new life, resolute in her denouement that “I ain’t belonging to any man.”
I collect the buttons that be thrown out because they ain’t perfect, because they ain’t all looking exactly the same. Why a thing got to be perfect like that? I ain’t for that, for everything and everybody the same, else how I gonna fit, else how all the people living on the river gonna fit? If you ask me they ain’t. And I ain’t sold on this idea of perfection. Truly I ain’t.
An alternative way of life for women outside this isolated riverboat community is encapsulated through Aiyana’s encounter with Ella P. Fry, and her business as one of the “floating photographic studios”, who offers a small reprieve from Aiyana’s day to day life. The poetic interlacing of her mother’s memory of being photographed and Aiyana’s desire to do the same is precious. Although the grandmother holds her suspicions, reflecting the scepticism of the time in believing that a photograph steals your soul, Aiyana embraces this innovation, allowing it to capture her essence and prove she existed. She is alive, and she relishes the relatable experience she now shares with her mother and how there’s a picture “to prove what I be.”
In subtle ways, Joy highlights not only the individual strengths of women, but the true power elicited when women help each other, a fact which is easy to forget in today’s society when women are so often goaded into competing with one another. Aiyana is determined to learn how to read and regardless of the consequences, she is prepared to fight for this right as if her life depends on it, which in many ways it does. Whilst there are moments when the women’s refusal to help and their silence in response to their oppression generates anger and frustration in the reader, there are exquisite moments of subtle defiance in this novel, heart-warming transgressions that show women’s unwavering tenacity and potential to create change in the face of adversity. When three generations – Aiyana’s grandmother, mother and herself – along with Hannah Lutz, secretly meet in the grandmother’s boat to assist Aiyana to learn how to read and write, the powerful image which results is one that will persist.
The values and beliefs of Cherokee and Ojibwe ways of life are beautifully intertwined within the narrative, instilling a respect for nature and its enigmatic ways that parallel the novel’s landscape of women, and how, when hungry for money and power, men have forgotten their duties to both families and nature alike. However, Joy balances the gender (and racial) inequality by highlighting that men have a choice to be violent, aggressive and take ownership of what is not theirs, or to champion and empower all people. Aiyana pertinently questions time and again the actions of cruel men, why her father or any father for that matter would want to kill their child, take her spirit or do what a father should never do to his daughter.
Times the river see what daddy do and it sing my sorrow.
The juxtaposition between men like Floyd and his son Lyle is stark and effective, highlighting how real strength comes from showing respect, from not using the power one could over another, but choosing instead to be secure enough in oneself to allow another to share that power, that equality. Lyle is a fine character, who does the right thing and defies the “law of his father” to follow his own voice, his own beliefs. He equally fights for his sister’s rights, ultimately demonstrating that the way in which men treat women is a choice.
Acts of kindness are articulated so tenderly by Joy. Through all the heart-breaking realities, fear, violence and entrapment, the little acts of kindness become so meaningful, reminding us not to take kindness for granted. When someone chooses to be kind rather than cruel it is a gift, which many are quick to overlook when it is considered to be expected. The ending is a priceless denouement, a heartbreakingly inspirational scene which reminds you that despite the darkness of certain circumstances, the flickers of goodness in people can make all the difference.
Ultimately, this novel demonstrates the power of tenacity and determination, and just what is possible when a person keeps hoping and fights for the life they deserve.
About the publisher:
Linen Press was founded by Lynn Michell and has grown into a young publishing house full of passion, energy and integrity. Michell articulates the impetus behind Linen Press, stating that, “I want to read beautifully crafted writing that speaks to women. I want to fall into a novel and not emerge until its ending. I want to gasp at sentences that defy literary gravity.” The novels that have emerged from this publishing house are a tribute to women’s writing and writing in general, where Michell, the team and authors have an unswerving dedication and enthusiasm for truly inspirational and innovative literature.
Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley
Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.