Fran Wilde’s Riverland isn’t a particularly easy book to read, but it is worth it. The difficulty comes from the abuse the young protagonists face. Wilde articulates the constant edge of living in an abusive household, the careful interpretation of every twitch, every air, and every mood, waiting for the monster to appear. There were moments my chest was so tight I swore I’d never put down the book again until it was finished. I couldn’t leave sisters Eleanor and Mike there, I couldn’t leave myself there.
To feel safe enough to sleep, the sisters hide under Eleanor’s bed, where she has set up socks on the sharp coils of the springs, and Christmas lights for cheer, blankets positioned to hide the light from outside their protected space. She’s been reading The Hobbit to Mike, a brief escape, when one night a river appears beneath them, and the girls tumble into another world.
Once inside a strange world of herons, birds, ponies made of rags, nightmares made of smoke, and a lighthouse with a light solid enough to travel by, the girls learn their matrilineal ancestors had promised to protect this place. They’d set up glass fishing buoys to catch the nightmares and stop them from entering the “real” world. The girls know these buoys, they once hung in their house before their father smashed them in a rage.
The girls’ worlds soon collide, the weight of keeping their family’s dark secret against the girls’ mission to save Riverland sending shards of glass into the impossible foundation of their lives. There’s a friend and a grandmother who offer hope, but the girls are in a terrible place. Everything they face is too much for their tender ages. I spent the last third of the book clutching it, white knuckled and muttering, “Oh, Fran, please save them. Don’t leave them there, don’t leave them there.”
I guess I’d call this middle-grade horror fantasy, and it got to the core of me. Protect yourself if this kind of content triggers you, but for me? I give it 5/5 stars.