I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that struck such a deep note of nostalgia in me. The River House stirred awake in me long-forgotten teenage memories of days spent at the beach swimming in a teal blue ocean, of that same ocean turbulent with steely grey waves capped with white froth that skittered up the beach during an approaching storm, of the vibrantly alive bushland that made up the areas surrounding Maroochydore and Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast.
Perhaps I’m not looking hard enough, but I find it rare to find a book of this calibre that brings Queensland coastal areas to life in such a rich and fervent way. (Readers, if you have suggestions for other titles about Queensland that I should read, post your ideas in the comments section below).
But, it’s not just my personal nostalgia that makes this a good book. Janita Cunnington has crafted a richly evocative novel about growing up, about life spent on the river and near the ocean, about the passing of time and how just as the river’s path changes, meanders, sandbars appear and disappear, and deep channels are cut by the flow of the ocean and currents, so too life changes, there are bumps in the road, and at times all we take for granted is swept away.
The story begins in the late 1940s with four-year-old Laurie Carlyle immersed in an endless summer at the family’s river house, on the banks of the Broody River, near the small holiday town of Baroodibah. For young Laurie, the river house is a place of enjoyment, a wonderland of sights and smells, plants, animals and sea creatures.
“The wind made the tents across the river flap gaily. Sometimes it blew so strongly they all clapped their canvas sides as if they were an audience and they liked the show. Laurie liked it too: the river patched with lime and mauve; the boats bucking at their anchors; the white frill of the surf on the bar; the she-oaks sighing; the sea howling distantly; the pelicans getting up above the wind as high as small aeroplanes, up into the blue.”
But something happens at the river house that summer that changes things in the family. A crack in the family unit slowly grows longer and deeper as the years pass by. During this time the Carlyle families live in Brisbane but holiday on the Sunshine Coast, at the fictional Baroodibah, which involves long road trips from the city up through the Glasshouse Mountains, and to Nambour, past sugar cane fields and bushland. The one constant in Laurie’s life, through her teen years, young adulthood and then motherhood is the river house and all the nostalgic memories it holds for her. When her brother, Tony, deeply in debt, threatens to sell it, Laurie is devastated. She’s not ready to let go of the river house; she always imagined it would be there forever. But, nothing lasts forever, and ultimately she is faced with losing that which she loves most dearly.
The River House spans from Laurie’s early childhood through to 2005, when she is a grandmother. This timeframe is handled well, with fragments of Laurie and her family’s lives swelling to the fore and then receding again. Throughout is an underlying tension of dreams lost, of desires never quite fulfilled, which are balanced by achievements, trips back to the river house, reconnection with the river, and of love lost and renewed. The narration ebbs and flows, and meanders, much like the flow of the river or the tide of the ocean, and this makes for captivating reading.
There is one section that drags on a bit, when Laurie and Tony are in university and Tony develops strong political ideals and these ideals are discussed in detail with much fervour. But then, perhaps that’s the point? To highlight the depths of passion that politics can trigger in people, and for some it becomes their life mission. It also sets up Tony’s character for who he becomes later in life, and so while the political detail was a little much for me, it serves a valid purpose. The one area that baffled me a bit was that Laurie’s son, Vit, gets very little airtime compared to his younger sister, Cora. But then, he’s a bit of a disappointment and so perhaps his absence is purposefully constructed to this end. For me, these observations are mere trifles, and certainly do no detract from the power and beauty of the overall story.
Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed The River House, its charm, its vivid descriptions and the compelling story of Laurie’s life as seen through her eyes.
The River House by Janita Cunnington (Bantam 2016)
NOTE: I received my copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.