The Language of Letting Go
The Rivers of Heaven by Anthony Gardner

The Rivers of Heaven is a novel where the past is never far away and for each of its three protagonists yesterday seems to hold more promise than tomorrow. The two main strands of narrative are that of Sebastian and Stella, two characters living very different lives within the same city.  Sebastian is determined to pursue his photography rather than “sell out” like his father. What he wants, more than anything, is to recreate his childhood, a dream that can at least be partially realised by acquiring his parents’ old Cotswolds cottage.  Against this backdrop, single mother Stella’s struggle to raise her baby son alone is all the more immediate, yet as the narrative unfolds it becomes clear that she too, has one foot firmly rooted in the past.

The third protagonist is Kit, Stella’s newborn son. It is Kit, who we meet first, waiting to be born, and it is his journey that is the heartbeat of the novel, serving to illuminate the journeys of the other two.  For Kit to learn to live in the world he has to forget the beauty of Heaven he has experienced before birth and it is this necessity to let go of the past that is Gardner’s central theme.  Juxtaposing lyrical dreamlike sequences of Heaven with the banal realities of Kit’s first trip to the supermarket Gardner brings this idea to life. It’s an ambitious move for the first time novelist, and while at times this borders on becoming overwrought, the gamble largely pays off in delivering an original and memorable novel.

Memorable too are the worlds that Gardner creates; from Stella’s colourless council estate to the crumbling whitewashed streets of Turkey, each is more vivid than the last, grounding his characters and bringing depth to their stories. Nowhere is this more evident than in his descriptions of Sebastian’s childhood journeys to his beloved cottage; the silhouette of his mother in the front seat; his boyhood self like an explorer running from room to room; the kitchen tiles uneven under the wheels of his toy cars; these shards of his history are so tangible, they nearly begin to form part of the reader’s own.

As the novel builds towards a conclusion, Gardner sidesteps cliché, leaving the reader with a new take on the familiar. We are reminded that good people sometimes make bad choices and that often there is a better, grander plan for our futures than the one we can see in front of us right now. And that however that plan may turn out, it will always be better than life viewed only in the rearview mirror.

“Forget the future – give me back the past,” Sebastian declares towards the end of the book, realising the futility of his words as soon as he utters them. For each of the characters this is their transformation, the letting go of the past to take a chance on a future. And for Gardner at least, this looks set to be a bright one.