Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"After River" (Updated)

"He came on foot.  Like a mirage, he rose in a shimmer of heat waves above the winding dirt road leading to our door.  I watched him from the shadows of our enclosed porch."

Thus begins After River, a novel I read in 2008, several months before I started writing this blog. After I finished reading it, I remember thinking I wished I had a way of bringing it to the attention of other readers, because I feared it would get lost in the relentless release of new books.

For the record, I dislike recommending books because I don't know your taste as a reader.  I could tell you something is fantastic, create unrealistic expectations, and you could end up not only being disappointed, but question my taste as well.  

So, let me use a little reverse psychology here:  I don't recommend this book, but here's why I think you should know about it:

1.  For my readers in British Columbia, the Canadian province where I live, the writer of After River is Donna Milner, a sixty-five-year-old, former real estate agent, who lives outside of Williams Lake.  In other words, Milner is a local writer, and I think we should support local writers to the extent we can, as long as we like their work.  I like Milner's work.

2.  I don't want to give away too much about the story, but you should know there are gay male characters in it.  The preamble on the inside of the dust jacket doesn't state this, but it gives some sense of what happens.  It says, in part:

"Everything changes one hot July afternoon in 1966 when a long-haired stranger walks up the winding dirt road to their door.  The arrival of this soft-spoken Vietnam War resister sets catastrophic events in motion that will leave relationships shattered and Natalie [the protagonist] separated in unimaginable ways from the family she loves."

3.  What struck me about the novel is the sensitivity with which Milner handles the gay storyline.  I thought either she had firsthand knowledge of what it's like to be gay (perhaps she has a close relative, even a son, who is), or she is one perceptive writer.  Whatever the case, the gay characters are treated with the utmost respect and dignity, and that isn't always the case in written material.  

I fear Milner's novel didn't receive enough attention after it was released, particularly from the LGBTQ community.  I could be wrong, but I don't recall ever seeing it on the bookshelves at Little Sisters, the gay and lesbian emporium in downtown Vancouver.  And this is a shame because they sell plenty of crap. Milner's novel isn't crap.  It's possibly one of the best books I've read with a gay storyline.  It offers a beautiful portrayal of gay love, with no salaciousness whatsoever, and it will break your heart to learn what happens to the characters.

To pique your curiosity further, here's another quote:

"I stood frozen.  The scene in front of me, the rumpled bed, the clothes strewn on the floor, River's canvas duffel bag in the corner, his guitar case leaning against the wall, I took it all in.  But it made no sense.  The relief of finding River there conflicted with the truth of what I was seeing.  I heard Boyer's voice groan, 'Oh, God, Natalie.'"

Interested?  I hope so.   

Update:  So this past Monday, April 25th, Chris and I found ourselves unexpectedly in downtown Vancouver.  We were supposed to spend the day in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, but we missed the nine o'clock ferry by seven cars and didn't wait until eleven o'clock for the next departure.  So we decided to drive into Vancouver instead.

Among the places we visited was Little Sisters, located on Davie Street.  To my surprise, and delight, I found a copy of Milner's book on their bookshelves--a single copy, mind you, and not in the section I expected.  It was in the lesbian fiction section.

I don't have a problem with it's categorization there, and I understand because the writer is female and the story concerns a female protagonist, it might be assumed women would be more interested in reading it than men.    

But this means most gay men probably wouldn't consider After River, and that's a shame.  After all, the gay story line concerns two men, not two women.  And, as I wrote previously, Milner does a beautiful job of presenting this storyline, which is a significant part of the novel.

Don't be misled by the book's cover or where it's placed in a bookstore.  Milner's story is universal and deserves attention from both sexes.  


  1. I just reserved a library copy... I'm looking forward to giving it a whirl!

  2. Let me know what you think, Doug. Milner's novel takes a little while to get started because there's some set up to go through. But be patient. I think you will be surprised by what happens, and how beautifully Milner handles the gay storyline, which is the basis of the book. I only wish all novels with gay storylines handled them as well as she does.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. I just finished this novel last night and I so wish I could say I unequivocally loved it. I can't. But, I loved the bones of it of it so, so, so, so, so much!

    The main flounder, for me, was the fact that Milner took her lessons in foreshadowing too much to heart. Everything you read, every little memory, mention, or ominous ending statement really will come back at some point. So much so that I can pinpoint the page where I knew exactly what was going to play out...and it did (around 163, I just don't have my copy here right this second to be absolutely sure, so don't quote me).

    Having said that, OH MY GOODNESS!!! Would this not make a spectacular film!?! The screenplay would shed the needless over-explanation and we would be left with an overwhelmingly beautiful story of a family who loved a boy so much more than he could possibly reciprocate.

    I do love this story. But it could be told even better.


    rmsalik, what you have written is the exact review I would have written, had I reviewed Milner's novel. Milner is not a great writer; however, she is a good storyteller.

    Her story is compelling as hell, particularly when it really gets started, which, for me, happened on page 216, when, furious, Natalie goes into the woods to the cabin where Boyer lives. From then on, the book is a page-turner, because the reader is invested in the characters.

    As a writer myself, I know the function of the previous 215 pages is to set up the story and to create interest. But several times I just about gave up, thinking there'd be no pay off in the end (read: it took too long for the story to get started).

    That said, I would have missed out enormously if I hadn't stuck with it. I suspected all the way along something BIG would happen, and it sure did. I even suspected there would be a wonderful gay storyline, given some of the clues Milner dropped. And I was right there, too.

    For me, the real story wasn't about Natalie; it was about Boyer. And, of course, River. As I wrote in my post, Milner handles their story with enormous sensitivity. She did not write a gay novel, per se, but she did present a story of two characters as compelling as any I've ever read.

    The most important part of Milner's book for me is the presentation of a storyline that lends great dignity and respect to gay characters. As long as my blog is about looking at the positive about being gay, and about presenting gay people, fictional or not, in a positive way, then Milner's novel will be at the top of my list.

    You are right, a movie of this story would be incredible. I would be first in line to see that.

    Thanks for your comment and for taking the time to tell me what you thought of Milner's novel. I come away from what you wrote believing you don't think you wasted your time. That's a relief.