Alison Croggon: The River and the Book
Walker Books 2015
“All writing comes from the inside,” said Ling Ti. “It burns you with wanting to be written. It’s the writing that matters.”
— From Chapter 25, The River and the Book
Rivers and books have so much in common, don’t they? They each have a beginning, a middle and an end. They’re ever-changing, never quite the same — even a little way further on. If you ever revisit them they are different again, their compositions have somehow altered — either in their elements or the relationship between those elements — and outside influences have meant that your perception has had to permanently adjust. Which is why Alison Croggon’s novella, The River and the Book, works so well, each aspect of the title informing the other and complementing it.
The first-person narrator is Simbala, who lives in a village on the banks of an unnamed river in an unidentified country. Does it matter where in the world this is? Not really, for this could be any so-called undeveloped country one can think of, about to be forever affected by commercial exploitation, the unrest that comes in its wake, the environmental impacts that accrue and the societal fragmentations that inevitably follow. Healthy rivers matter — for the environment, for the communities that rely on it for life and livelihood. And when the river that flows past Simbala’s village shows signs of change for the worse, it’ll inevitably affect her, family, friends and the community that depends on it.
The Book that is in the hereditary keeping of Simbala is more than just a totem object. On one level it may be an aid to bibliomancy, for foretelling possibilities, but also a consolation, an heirloom and an indicator of communal health. On yet another level Croggon presents it as an ever-changing possession, perhaps in a magic realist sort of way — though as with all literature any random page will never reappear the same as the first time you saw it.
When an outsider — an environmental activist and academic writer — visits the village to examine how corporate greed upriver adversely affects those living downriver, she herself proves by a single inexplicable act to be the catalyst for change that she ostensibly came to record. In an attempt to right the wrong visited on her village Simbala, the hereditary Keeper of the now lost Book, travels alone in pursuit of Jane Watson. Spurred by shame and anger she finds her way to the teeming city, here to reflect on loss, change and failure while pouring her heart into the new book she is writing and communicating her hopes and fears to her new companions. Until, that is, she hears that Jane Watson is back in the city.
Croggon’s book is endorsed by Amnesty International UK “as contributing to a better understanding of human rights and the values that underpin them.” You might, therefore, see this an merely as issues book — well-meaning, do-gooding, preaching to the converted and, maybe, ultimately rather depressing. These are what my initial thoughts were, but I was wrong. This is, indeed, about change brought about by human exploitation and ignorance, but it is also about managing that change as individuals, especially when we feel powerless in the face of developments greater and stronger than ourselves. We can only do what we can. It could be about calling individuals to account, though that often can come at great personal cost. Or it could be about finding positive things to do, establishing new relationships and underpinning it all with love and compassion. That too may be difficult:
“The secret, Sim, is always to write with love,” he said. “Love is the hardest thing in the world, and it’s the one thing we mustn’t forget. It’s much more difficult than anyone thinks.”
But it may be the best means to make ourselves happy, after a fashion, especially after the loss of things we once held dear. This, I feel, is the core idea I took from The River and the Book, despite its unpromising starting point of environmental disaster. And love and compassion can only help make us stronger, place us in a better position to address those issues that disturbed us so.
The author — a poet, playwright and best-selling fantasy writer — offers us a beautifully-written gem of a book, realistic but also optimistic. She sympathetically conjures up a disappearing way of life in a way that reminds me a little bit of Ursula Le Guin’s speculative novels. For Croggon this was a clearly a book that was inside her, burning her with just wanting to be written; for us it is one to consider, to treasure and to share.