big river, little fish, belinda jeffrey (uqp)
tom was born backwards. from the first page, belinda jeffrey's story calls all of your senses as she details tom's tragic birth - ending with the death of his young mother - on the muddy banks of the mighty river, the old mother murray.
the story takes place in 1956, when tom has grown to a young man of fifteen. he has been raised by foster parents who, though they love their boy as their own son, are frustrated with him. tom lives in a backwards world, he does not read like the others in his class, the letters do not align properly for him. his teacher is impatient, cruel even, and his parents urge him to try harder. tom can speak to cars and engines, soothe and fix them, but his parents want him to go on to higher education.
the river calls to him, draws him to her every day. he has friends down on the bank, no-hopers, the sad and crazy lost souls. tom looks out for them and we see his strength and love and dedication. murray black, who was there the day tom entered the world, and will always protect him. and then there's hannah, almost like a sister for tom. hannah is a curious one. she understands tom, calls him 'mot' and helps him find his letters. the reader, straight away, realises that there is something about hannah, something you just can't put your finger on. i was fairly certain i knew what was going on, which made me flip back in the story to reread parts a few times because i felt like i had missed something, and my reading rhythm was broken a bit (this is my only teeny criticism of the book, but you know what? i have a feeling this was intentional). my hunch was correct, but it isn't until the end that hannah's truth is revealed.
big river, little fish takes place during the real-life floods of '56. the river, and the land, become a character in the novel; creating the drama, testing friendships and relationships. the river can take away everything tom has known in a moment. however, there is also the possibility that the river can give back as well.
belinda jeffrey's metaphors and amazing descriptions render this story evocative, beautiful, raw and totally engrossing. she created the small town of swan reach so vividly i could smell it. she drew the inhabitants of the town in perfect detail. i could feel their fear as the mother murray's levels rose, threatening the sandbags and the levees.
it was frightening to read a book about a flood now, with the horrific events in pakistan (you can donate to unicef and to the international federation of red cross and red crescent societies), and those closer to home this week.
this is a remarkable book, and a must-read for all.