Award-winning Belgian actress and playwright Damas' fablelike first novel tells the story of an illiterate teenager in a small village struggling with loneliness and a sense of not belonging.
Seventeen-year-old François Sorrente misses his beloved older sister, who crossed the eponymous river in defiance of their father years ago and never returned. His only friends are the pigs he spends his days tending on the family farm. His father and two brothers are brutish and uncommunicative; a third brother committed suicide by jumping off the roof. In spite of his self-isolating family, François strikes up a secret friendship with the village priest, finds a girlfriend, and eventually learns to read. He longs to discover what happened to his mother and also what lies across the river, where he has been sternly instructed never to go. François' life is startlingly bleak and his journey toward happiness, sympathetic. "For as long as I can remember I've felt that deep within I really am stupid and a simpleton, because the father tells me that, because my fingernails are black, I live among pigs, and my life is so small—how can your life be big when you don't know how to read and you don't know anything but your village?" But the fairy-tale quality of the story works against nuance or real surprise. Events unfold predictably. Of course the ruins of the burned-out buildings across the river hold the secret truth about our hero's origins! Of course the horrible father and brothers aren't really his blood relations! The moments of epiphany likewise fail to satisfy: "Suddenly I thought that life was beautiful...like something bloody that takes you by chance, that flays you, but that's how life is when you're at the heart of it, when something happens and it happens to you, then you can say that life is beautiful."
Well-meaning but heavy-handed.