Book Review: If You Cross the River

Geneviéve Damas, If You Cross the River
Translated by Jody Gladding
Milkweed Editions
2019, 152 pages, paperback

I remember the fables that were told frequently in my youth, like The Boy Who Cried Wolf and The Hare and The Tortoise — passed down generation to generation to remind us not to lie and that slow and steady wins the race.  If You Cross The River is a modern fable about the power of friendship, self-determination, and the tremendous impact of education. The author of this fable, Geneviéve Damas, is a Belgian  novelist, playwright, and actress. After completing a law degree, she determined that she wanted to pursue a career in theater instead. She has acted, directed, and wrote award-winning plays for both children and adults. If You Cross The River is her first novel, forthcoming in a new translation from from the French by Jody Gladding (an author herself) for Milkweed Editions in May 2019. Already, the book has gained International acclaim.  Due to this novel being a translation, the overall story, arrangement, and verbage were quite different than the novels I’m used to reading– both because of the nature of the fable and the non-American, literary tradition. Although the world of this book isn’t quite applicable to my life  (I am quite fortunate. I have a supportive, loving family, I’ve had a formal education, and I don’t many restrictions on my life) If You Cross The River, spoke to me due to its fablistic sense of symbolism for young adults.

Illiterate, isolated, and confined to short length by a bitter, abusive father, François Sorrente has spent his seventeen years of life within narrow borders. His daily regime consists of tending to the family pigs while also managing household chores. François can’t help but wonder about the outside world that he has been closed off from and his particularly his place in it (as do most young adults). He wonders about his mother, who he doesn’t remember at all, and is never spoken of. And about why the opposite shore of the river, where his beloved older sister, disappeared many years ago, is uncrossable? Driven by this curiosity, François turns to the resources and folk of his town to help make sense of the pieces of information missing from his life. He begins reading lessons with a curé, falls into an affair with a village woman, and becomes friends with a piglet named Hyménée. As François questions both his past and the path forward, he begins to unfold the true story of his mother and sister, and becomes a changed man with this new understanding.

I adored this novel for this symbolism and the momentous changes that the main character, Francois, went through. Francois, himself, also becomes symbolic. He grew up with an abusive father, his mother and mother figure–his sister–abandoned him, his brother died, he was illiterate, he had an identity crisis as he looked nothing like any of his family members… Francois goes to the curé (French for priest) to learn how to read. Through reading, and other connection, he tries to conquer his isolation. No matter how weird it sounds, but being friends with the pigs and learning the empathy that was often lacked in his household, he transforms. And this is universal. The boy accomplished everything he wanted to despite all of the obstacles he had to face. He also did everything in his power to figure out his identity and the world beyond his village.  And, SPOILER ALERT: He crossed the river.

Throughout this novel, you have to pay attention to the prose–as every word has symbolic meaning behind it. I can say that no word was unnecessary. For example, at the beginning, he talks about about how his father kept him “from running off to the other side of the river where life led you and you never came back the same.” This is symbolism that the other side of the river is the door to the outside world and new opportunities. Every word fit precisely how they should have with all of the meaning behind it and that is probably why the length is a short, sweet 130 pages. I do wish that it could have been a little longer, and that the ending wasn’t as abrupt. Understandably, fables typically aren’t too long so I understand the author’s  choice.

This book is relatable to everyone in a symbolic way and is also an eye-opener to those who are fortunate enough to be provided education, happy household, and lack of a confining atmosphere. Overall, This book would be  great for readers of The Mire because as humans, especially young adults navigating through life, we contain a curiosity about the world around us and our place there.

–Emma Storm ’19