The River the Town Farah Ali book review
book review

Book Review: The River, The Town

THE RIVER, THE TOWN by Farah Ali is a deep and powerful work of literary climate fiction. Check out more of what Nick Rees Gardner has to say about this Dzanc Books novel.

The River, The Town

by Farah Ali

Genre: Literary Fiction

ISBN: 9781950539888

Print Length: 216 pages

Publisher: Dzanc Books

Reviewed by Nick Rees Gardner

A deep and powerful work of literary climate fiction

Baadal’s name means “cloud,” but clouds are a far-flung wish for those living in his drought-ridden Pakistani town. The river has dried up along his squabbling parents’ love.

Farah Ali’s The River, The Town follows Baadal, his wife Meena, and his mother Raheela over a lifetime from their rural landscape to the faraway dream of the City, as they try and fail and try again to love each other. As the title suggests, the Town depends on the river, a relationship just as fraught as the relationships between the humans that the river feeds.

With straightforward prose and a roving point of view, Ali traces the echoes between water and thirst, person and place, in this meditation on regionalism, poverty, and family trauma.

Growing up, Baadal dreams of living in the City, a sort of promised land where people go when they’ve made it. His mother is verbally and physically abusive and his father is distant, often parked in front of the television. Food is scarce. Even so, Baadal has hope for something more.

When he meets Meena, a recently divorced woman, by the muddy dregs of the river, he falls in love with her, sneaking her food and money in hopes that she will become his wife. The plot evolves from the push and pull of these relationships as Baadal grows up and moves with Meena to the City.

They both attempt to balance multiple jobs and strained relationships. By spending money and eating well, they distance themselves from their abusive families, set themselves apart. Meena says, “Each time I bought something it made Baadal happy, and that made the distance between the edge of the City and the Town seem to grow longer.” Though they may not actually find happiness in the City, they find for themselves a separation from their abusive roots and a hope that their relationship will be different.

Ali’s prose often leans into summary, but the use of vague identifying markers and spare descriptions expand the sense of place beyond a specific city or town. Though Ali does not give place names, the reader can intuit the setting through the characters’ reactions.

For example, when talking about the river, Baadal says, “When my friend Juman is extra hungry he says it looks like a gray intestine.” While naming the river would lock the reader into an understanding of a specific region (and allow the reader to intuit a regional identity), Juman’s description steals the focus back to the characters, their hunger as it is reflected in the river. If the river or city or town were named, the reader might be able to distance themselves from a region by referring to it as “impoverished” or “third world,” but Ali’s prose is crafty. The reader is forced to empathize with the characters and then see the place evolve through that character’s experience, through their wants and needs. What was once a specific place becomes an “every-City,” an “every-Town.”

While reading Ali’s dichotomy of the City and the Town, it’s easy for American readers to draw connections between New York and what is often termed “flyover country,” or really any other division between those who have and those who have not. While for the Townies the river is a dwindling life force, for the City folk who twist the taps to make water flow, the river is far from their minds. However much the City folk try to separate themselves from the rural, “It seems like someone is always coming back to the Town, or leaving it, or dying in it, or getting married in it.” The Town is a reminder of struggles that will never go away.

For such a short book, the scope of The River, The Town is massive, spanning most of Baadal’s life and changing in point of view between Baadal, Meena, and Raheela. The changing point of view allows the reader to see each character from multiple angles, expanding them beyond their own biases.

Ali’s deft handling of Baadal’s personal oversights, of the lies he tells himself, evolves an untrustworthy narrator to be appraised through Meena and Raheela’s eyes. Each characters’ faults are contextualized by the insights of others, making this book much larger than expected. Each character is revealed intimately. With all their faults laid bare, it’s impossible not to love and hurt for them.

Farah Ali’s is a fresh voice in fiction, a voice that takes risks and rewards the reader with a deeper understanding of their own condition. Her scope is global but also deeply personal. Ali’s is not a new name in the literary world, but her debut novel, The River, The Town, is an outstanding addition to what I hope is a long-lasting and prolific career. 

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