“Into the Depths: Sion Dayson’s As a River“
Reviewed by Sean Alan Cleary
As a River pulls readers under the weigth of history with an expertly crafted plot, lyrical prose, and an ending that brings us to the depths of life and death.
When Greer, a black man at the center of Sion Dayson’s As a River, returns to the small (fictional) Middle-Georgia town of Bannen where he’d grown up, it’s unclear to him if anything has changed in the fifteen intervening years. Perhaps, he thinks, it’s only him that’s changed since he left in 1961. It’s a classic conceit, especially for a character whose steeped himself as a child in the literature of self, from quoting Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody!” to Byron and Wordsworth’s romantics, to the clever self-inversions of e.e. cummings.
Greer has come home to visit his mother, who is ailing with a cancer she refuses to acknowledge. But it’s far from the only thing that his mother Elizabeth refuses to speak into existence, like the town’s white supremacist violence and its effects on the African American section of town, East Bannen.
The town is silent, he thinks. The town refuses to change, to grow past that violence by acknowledging it. His language is often reminiscent of Marcus Garvey or of W.E.B. Dubois in this respect, which makes sense as he’s spent some of the intervening years in the newly liberated Republic of Ghana. We learn in offhand detail that the town of Bannen often consists of “mostly women,” as the men are either toiling far away in fields or factories, or victims of not far-off violence like the man who had to be “cut down by his friends.”
The lyrical prose with its firm and steadied focus and its smooth— almost river-like—flow allows for the unsaid things in the first few chapters to begin to develop as questions as the novel progresses: did Greer leave because he needed to escape, or because he was run out of town? What do Greer and the young neighbor girl’s ambiguous patronages have in common, if anything? What came between Greer and his young love, a white girl from West Bannen named Caroline whose necklace and picture he reveals in the first chapter? Imagery is central to understanding these questions, like water as both bringer of death and freedom, time as both flowing and still, fire as both hot and cold.
The book reads as social realism, exploring the personal and political struggles facing Americans and especially Black and African Americans. We are anchored in the years between 1944 and 1977, spanning the periods of the later Civil Rights Movement and Pan Africanism, with most chapters having dates as well as titles. Greer is aware of not only the white supremacist violence of his small town but of the Civil Rights Movement hoping to defeat that violence. He at first chooses exile to Ghana, but finds he cannot stay there.
Much of the novel can be seen as addressing many of the concerns of self and of the “dual consciousness” of black personhood in white supremacist and colonial societies—Greer is at once American, tied to his hometown, but also othered as an African American in the white power structure. In Ghana, he feels both “African” and other with his light skin, a hint at that ambiguous patronage. He is dismayed to be called “Broyni White man!” on the streets of Accra, yet he feels more at home than ever there.
Still, something like gravity draws him back to Georgia. This question of dual identity, central to the trans-continental black cultural movement the critic Paul Gilroy and others called the “Black Atlantic,” anchors Dayson’s novel, and the author wonderfully explores these complicated ideas not just through the plot of the novel but through the stunning language as well.
But what makes the novel not just a good story, but a good novel, is its use of time—each chapter is dated, but the dates do not flow in one direction. Yet, as a reader, I never felt lost. The movements in time are not jumps, but instead deft touches on the rudder that steer readers toward the implied questions the text offers. In this, Dayson shows a skill for voice, not just of her narrative voice, but the simple touches that bring that voice to bear on different characters, from a white southern woman wondering if she’s “fulfilled her cotillion calling” to the heartfelt goodbye Greer has with his Ghanaian girlfriend Gloria, whose use of proverbs in her narration (“a man never tests the depth of a river with two feet”) strike the reader as both maybe cliché and appropriate. She tells Greer, “even if we never see each other again, I say, we shall meet.”
Readers looking to explore the conundrums of identity and self at the heart of contemporary America, and the heart of the Black experience that spans continents, should pick up this book. But also, fans of any story of mystery, self-discovery, and historical memory. Fans of Greek tragedy even should seek out the text, because as the book progresses (no spoilers) it becomes more and more a thing of high tragedy. What’s more Greek than a story of exile and return?
Dayson has created a compelling story told both beautifully and with a truth that threatens to pull a reader under—whether we emerge from that truth transformed, or sink into its depths, might be up to us.
Publisher: Jaded Ibis Press
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