Rating: 4.5 stars
Adam Kavanaugh has returned to his home town and family after having lived for several years in a series of other cities and towns after college. A broken relationship, a series of them really, meant he had to start up his life again and this time Ashton, WV called him back home. But fitting back into the sleepy pace of small town life is not going as smoothly as Adam thought it would. His young brother TJ is as resentful of Adam’s return as he was of his brother’s leaving town years before. For TJ, life is should be lived in Ashton, under the shadow of the Appalachians and he has never forgiven his brother for leaving him and the family behind when Adam could have gone to Trinity College right in town as TJ is now doing. TJ has also never understood Adam’s bisexuality and the relationship between the two is strained.
Now back in town, Adam’s life falls into a strange sort of stasis. He spends his days painting a mural on the wall in the small clapboard house he bought, he works and games and avoids phone calls from old friends still in town. And Adam runs a set path through town and along the Ohio River three days a week, trying to make it all seem like home once more. But a chance encounter with a strange young man floating in the Ohio shatters Adam’s inertia.
Leith Marshall is a member of TJ’s college swim team so Adam recognizes at once the form floating in silence on the surface of the Ohio River. At first, Adam thought that something must be wrong and races to the river’s edge only to find Leith bobbing contentedly in the current. Which was odd in of itself. The Ohio was a fast, snarly, dark river and Leith looked totally at ease within it’s embrace. When Leith emerges from the river to respond to Adam’s shout, Adam admires Leith’s beautiful swimmers body barely covered by a pair of grey briefs. But it’s Leith shy smile and gentle ways that have Adam falling hard within a matter of days. But the more Leith lets Adam into his life, the more off kilter Leith’s life seems. Leith and his father live above an abandoned aquarium store that used to belong to Leith’s absent mother. Leith’s father has some strange ideas concerning his son and water. Everything about Leith seems connected in some way to water. Leith cannot stay away from it for any length of time, whether he is swimming in the Ohio or splashing about in a bathtub. And when Adam hears Leith sing in a strange haunting language, the idea of a siren’s song springs to mind. The more Adam falls in love with Leith, the less it matters that Leith might be more than human. Right up until Leith’s father reminds Adam of his wife’s strange disappearance when the ocean’s call become too strong. What will happen when Leith says he wants to see the ocean too?
What an utterly beguiling story. By The River has a quiet, mesmerizing rhythm to it, pulsing with life as it relates the story of a young man who might just be as elemental as water itself. With her wonderful characterizations and vivid descriptions of a setting that is clearly close to the author’s heart, Katey Hawthorne builds a story of a love between two men that becomes so strong, so elemental in nature that even the idea of loss cannot break it.
I love the mystery that surrounds Leith Marshall from the moment we meet him, floating effortlessly on top of a river whose currents churn around him to little effect. Even his name Leith means broad river in English, and has a origin in Lethe, the Greek river of forgetfulness. Leith and water are so intimately intwined that he cannot bear to be parted from it for any length of time and is at his most content when he is immersed in it. Leith and his father Mr. Marshall, a bitter, isolated man, live in a building that once housed his mother’s aquarium shop, until a flood demolished it and his mother disappeared. Now just Leith and his father live among the remnants of their former lives, empty dusty tanks and peeling posters of fish still hanging off the walls downstairs, while the sounds of water lapping up against the shore that is their backyard echo around them. The author pulls us in with her minute attention to the uniqueness that is Leith. He “smells like fresh rainwater”, his eye color changes in accordance with the nearest body of water, and Leith loves to read in the old store where the sounds of the river is the strongest. Detail by detail, Hawthorne builds an aura of mystery around Leith’s very nature. And yet we also understand Adam’s complete acceptance of Leith’s strangeness as a part of someone he loves because we have come to love Leith as well. The love between Adam and Leith flows like water over everything before it, including all the obstacles and arguments that others like TJ throw in its path.
I loved Adam as well. Adam is someone on hold but who can’t figure out the reason for his ennui. Adam is waiting, poised for change and it arrives in the form of Leith. Adam has been a serial monogamist with a number of boyfriends and girlfriends right up until his last breakup which really didn’t upset him as much as it should. Again, it’s as though he knew he was waiting for someone else to come before he could finally commit, focusing inward so much that Adam’ self centered behavior adversely affects his relationship with his brother, TJ. And then he commits himself to Leith with an ease of effort that sends TJ in a rage even as he fears for them both as out gays in a small West Virginia town not always tolerant of those who are different. Katey Hawthorne adds layer upon layer to her authentic portrait of small town life, until Ashton becomes gritty, real, and memorable as any of her characters.
As Leith surges and flows with life so does Adam but in his own way. Adam’s tolerant, accepting personality is necessary if Leith is truly to be a part of his life. The weirdness that is Leith continues when Adam meets Mr. Marshall who he views as more of a keeper than father to his lover. But the man’s torment and pain over the loss of his Scottish wife breaks through Adam’s anger on Leith’s behalf. But the pity he sees in the man’s eyes as he talks about losing his son to the ocean the same way as his wife unsettles Adam when he realizes the pity he sees is for him. That the father thinks Adam is on the same path he took with Leith’s mother is clear. And when the boys leave town for a short visit to the sea, the scene where Mr. Marshall says goodbye to his son is overwhelmingly painful and sad.
Although the name selkie is never used, it is implied that Leith’s mother was a Scottish Selkie who resumed her seal form when the call of the ocean became too great. Or at least that is clearly what the father believes. Is Leith magical? He certainly is to Adam, and to his father. I feel there is a murkiness as well as a mystique that lurks just underneath the surface of the story, just as opaque as the Ohio river that Leith loves so much. I loved the ending of this story, especially because for me it can be interpreted two different ways. For me, the nature of the ending of By The River has all the fluidity of water itself as buoyant love the boys feel for each other carries them along with the currents, caught in the ebb and flow of the tides. The journey to get to this end point was wondrous, sexy and natural for Adam and Leith and the reader. And the last vision we see of Leith is a promise but of what? I think it is up to each person to come to their conclusions as to what happens next, to believe in what has been said between the lovers or the pull of something quite different. How I loved this and I wait eagerly for the next installment in the series. I know the author won’t let us down.
Cover artist Mina Carter does a gorgeous job giving us a cover that delights from gorgeous male torsos to the falcon tattoo that figures within the story.