The River by Michael Neale is a novel I acquired a while ago because of a hype. Many employees of the publishing company had read it and very highly recommended it, so I thought I would give it a shot. While it wasn't at all a bad book, it was certainly a disappointment.
The story starts out in the present day, where a fifty-ish man named Gabriel Clarke approaches the story's narrator and tells him that he's on his way back from travelling around the world, running National Geographic's Top Ten Most Dangerous and Beautiful Rivers in the World. After exploring numerous beautiful locations, meeting tons of new friends, and encountering multiple near-death experiences, he was ready to head home. And then he tells the narrator his life story, which is the bulk of the book.
Now, that might sound like a really intriguing story, but in reality the story doesn't focus at all on that long adventure he had. It's about his childhood and early years. When he was five, he watched his father die saving another man's life in The River. For the next fifteen years he would grow up with his mom in a small town in Kansas, before eventually, after a series of events, work at a summer camp in Colarado, where he would rediscover his true love of The River.
Right off the bat, I had problems with this book. The story is supposed to be about Gabriel, but the first two chapters are almost entirely from the point of view of his parents. If this is Gabriel's story, why is it being told through the eyes of others? In addition, the writing style of this book looks like it was written by a teenager. Not that it has bad grammar or it's poorly written or anything, but it just seems like it'd be something that I would write myself, if I had the ability to stay on a single writing project long enough to finish it.
The whole book just doesn't seem at all realistic. Some would argue that that's the point of fiction, but not when a book tries to be realistic. You can tell that the author meant for it to be a story that could have actually happened, but it didn't at all turn out that way. The entire story felt forced. Like the storyteller didn't know how to tell a story.
The dialogue is written in a way so that almost all of the characters appear to have the same personality (a personality which isn't in the slightest bit realistic), and sometimes it just felt like the author didn't know how things work. Things like animal behavior and what it's like to live in a small townâ€”you get the impression that the author thought he knew what he was talking about, but he really, certainly didn't.
There's also the allegorical elements, such as whenever any river is mentioned at any of the book, the characters refer to it as The River. And everyone thinks The River is amazing beyond anything else, to the point where you get bored every time it's mentioned. Throughout the book, The River is a very obvious and poorly-implemented metaphor for God. If the author wanted to write a good book, he should have removed all allegorical content completely and just wrote it as a story. It would have been much more enjoyable.
Another part of the book I didn't care for was that some romance elements were added in, but for no purpose. If they'd been expanded on it might have added to the story, but as they were they were kind of pointless. Perhaps they were part of the allegory, and that would be why they could have been a brilliant addition, but they weren't. And on that point, the romance was absolutely unrealistic.
However, after pointing out all these parts of the book that made it not nearly as great as it could have been, I also have to point out that these can all be attributed as minor gripes. While I had problems with the story, other readers may not. I actually found the book quite enjoyable at times, though I always got bored when the characters got started talking about The River.
One of the aspects I liked about the bookâ€”though I'm not sure they should be considered as prosâ€”is the similes used by the author. I don't know why, but I just found them hilarious. The sad part is that the author didn't mean them to be cheesy or hilarious; he meant them to be serious. However, I might be the only person who's even taken note of them.
I have to admit, when I first picked up this book I was more than a little skeptical. I've read enough books that were backed by countless rave reviews to know that great reviews don't always mean a great book. Having read dozens of 5-star reviews about how The River changed the reader's life, I was just a bit doubtful.
I was very pleasantly surprised with the book, though, I'm pleased to say. Though I'm not sure I would call it life-changing, it was most definitely meaningful and impacting - and I don't just say that about any old book.
I've recently been reading quite a few books that follow themes similar to The River's - namely, don't live life on the sidelines, get in and embrace it, take risks and follow your destiny. And although that trend has been unintentional on my part, I've been enjoying the ideas it has encouraged me to explore. The River is definitely the best book of that nature that I've read so far. Who knows? Maybe God is trying to tell me something.
My only complaint - and it's so small and trivial that it doesn't really even qualify as a complaint - is that throughout the book, every time anything was said about the river (which was a lot - it's about whitewater rafting), the words 'the river' were capitalized. I get what the author or editor or whoever was trying to do with that, but when you're reading along at a good speed and all of a sudden The River is capitalized in the middle of a sentence it can be jolting. More than once my rhythm got derailed because I saw the capital letters and thought I was starting a new sentence, which didn't make sense with the words themselves. And then it wasn't even done every time the words 'the river' were written. I caught several instances in which they were all lowercase, with no detectable pattern to the difference. That whole issue got on my nerves quite a few times throughout the book.
But other than that tiny annoyance, as I said before this book was great. What makes it even more impressive is that it is apparently the author's first work. As a fellow writer, I take my hat off to Mr. Neale. Well done on an outstanding first novel! The rest of you out there, take note. This is an author to watch.
On the whole, a really enjoyable and thought-provoking read. This one will be staying on my shelves for a good long while, and I'm already thinking about reading it again.
I received a copy of this book free of charge for the publisher in exchange for my review. A favorable review was not required, and my opinions are my own.
Gabriel Clarke was "made for The River." Coming from a family legacy of whitewater adventurers, it's "in his blood," as the book says. The River by Michael Neal is a story chock full of life lessons - forgiveness, living life to the full, and overcoming grief. After a haunting accident on The River leaves five-year-old Gabriel without a father, he finds himself far from the waters of Colorado and deep in a sleepy town in Kansas. Growing up is a struggle and he retreats into himself with the pain and grief of that fateful day. As he grows he slowly opens up, but parts of him remain locked, until an unexpected invitation comes his way to go camping in the state where he was born and his father was lost. He experiences The River on that trip and again discovers the hold it has on him. He finds himself in love with a girl and before he knows it, he's working at The River adventure camp for the summer, which her father runs. It is there that he must face his grief full force in an unexpected way, and make the choice to retreat into his old pain or fight his way to the life he was meant to live on The River. I found this book a little slow going at first, but by the camping trip chapter I was intrigued to finish quickly. I was disappointed that it does not openly mention in any way that Christ is the way to true life, but I suppose it can be argued that The River was symbolic of that truth. The book contains a Reading Group Guide and interview with Andy Andrews and the author.