You can’t go home again, the adage says. Thomas Wolfe’s novel by the same name underlines this concept: that changes occur over time in a fondly remembered place, rendering home an entirely different place. In her debut novel, Sion Dayson diverts this notion of nostalgia, showing us that it’s also impossible to escape home’s demons without facing the past head-on.
Dayson’s protagonist, Greer Michaels, must come home. His mother is dying. Sixteen years ago, teenaged Greer fled his segregated hometown of Bannen, Georgia, with its dogwoods, its maple trees, its shortleaf pines, and the river that divides the town.
“It should have been harder for a young black boy to slip undetected from a small Southern town,” says the novel’s opening line.
Yet slip away he did. Now, upon return from his worldly travels, Greer must deal with the people, family, and secrets he left behind: His mother Elizabeth whose renowned singing was replaced with a weak, small voice around the time of his birth. Their neighbor Esse, who obliviates her own traumatic past with religion. Esse’s teenaged daughter Ceiley, whose love of books and worldly curiosity remind Greer of his teenage self. Greer will need to grapple with that self, with that young man who sailed literally away from the place he felt metaphorically drowning him — a place with powerful undercurrents.
Written in tight, lyrical prose that flows, much like its titular river, the novel reflects upon themes such as shame, redemption, despair, connection, family secrets, and the history of the segregated South. Using language and music, time and history — all elements that exhibit fluid qualities, as a river does — the novel alternates between past and present, with the present in this case being 1977.
Language is especially integral on multiple levels of the novel. Characters often communicate with one another by quoting poems and lyrics. The absence of language also plays a key role. His mother is not equipped to answer his questions, often burying the trauma associated with their family history in stony silence, “tun[ing] out the world.” Haunted by this silence, Greer turns to books and poetry, “wanting stories with simple resolution.”
As the novel progresses, its supporting cast of characters show us that there are no simple resolutions. Interaction with young Ceiley helps Greer to confront his ghosts: “You leave this town because you’re angry, leave with unsettled business–believe me,” he tells her, “you’ll never really escape it.” The novel’s bittersweet conclusion results from the testimony of hard truths, from reckoning with those truths, and from allowing community to buoy rather than overtake.
Sion Dayson’s As a River is a masterful debut, each of her chapters elegantly depositing layers of revelatory detail. Read it for the questions it raises, the struggle it evokes, the connections it makes, and the compassion it incites.