The ghost of what goes unsaid lays heavy over the characters at the center of Sion Dayson’s debut novel As a River. And they seem to hang heaviest over Greer Michaels, the protagonist who returns home to Bannen, Georgia, the small town he ran away from when he was sixteen. While Greer returns to care for his ailing mother, a whole web of auxiliary emotional baggage crops up early to catalyze this aching, human tale.
Questions in Orbit
Greer realizes early there will be no escaping the mental hardship in coming back when the narrative admits, “he’d have to disassemble everything if he were to move forward.” Thus begins a tale so filled with raw humanity and straightforward pathos that it feels absurd to note this is Dayson’s debut novel.
The writing is direct, driven by short sentences and brief interchanges of dialogue as characters strain to divulge what they know. The novel flips between the past and present, primarily staying in Greer’s shoes but giving us brief glimpses into the lives of other characters and their interactions with Greer.
Questions orbit the intricate passing of the torch amongst characters, including: Who is Greer’s father? What happens to Caroline, Greer’s youthful fling? And why did Greer abandon his mother and his home in the first place?
Enhancing how and when the novel drops hints about the answer to each of these is the setting: the segregated south. The 1970s being the present, the 1940s the past, though each time’s similarities outweigh the differences. Greer is black. Caroline is white. Greer’s mother worked as a housemaid for a white family on the other side of the city.
The diaphanous layers to this beautifully wrought novel seem endless, blooming to reveal more and more within and around the story’s bulb. The heartache stretches off the page as characters misfire, failing to connect with each other, no relationship more strained than that between Greer and his mother. Greer wants answers. His mother doesn’t know how to offer them.
The story never overstays its welcome as pages zip along, each new discovery deepening my connection with Greer. Perhaps there’s nothing groundbreaking in such a tale. It’s been told before. Boy runs off from small town where he feels trapped, returns home years later, exorcises his demons, comes to grips with the past and finds himself ready to move on.
Yet there is nothing boring in Dayson’s telling of it. Nothing that you could say is tired. Her quick-fire sentences are revelatory, her dialogue expertly wrought, her portrayal of the racial and social tensions of the small town south in the 40s and 70s a heroic reminder of how fiction can point so clearly, so unimpeachably, at the truth of how things were, how things are.
Eventually, Greer finds answers, as does the reader. Though before he gets them, we understand why answers are so hard to find for Greer, perhaps for ourselves, as Dayson notes, “We tell ourselves what we need to in order to get through. Just one story, we can let it define our whole life. But should we?” Greer realizes how trapped each person around him is within their one story, how trapped he is by his single story as well. It all hearkens back to the famous Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Greer’s work of extrication leads this book to its grand conclusion, equal parts sorrow and solace, two emotions that many of the best endings seem to elevate.
The literary world needs more characters like Greer. It needs more stories like As a River, told with such beautiful economy. And until the world has more writers like this, we can at least find peace in knowing there is someone like Sion Dayson out there to write the stories that matter in a way that makes it so easy to pay attention.
As a River is published by Jaded Ibis Press.