Anne Raeff’s “Only The River” Weaves Through Time, Borders, and Desire
“Old man,” he said, for he did not know his name, but the old man did not stir, so he remained in the old man’s bed, waiting for daybreak, watching him sleep, thinking about, if he had to choose, would he choose Pepa or the ship, wondering whether love was just an excuse for cowardice. When dawn came, the old man was still sleeping, so he left him to his dreams and found his way back to the river.” (98)
And here we have Anne Raeff’s newest novel, a celebration of time, space, and woven narrative. The novel traces the stories of a half dozen people all intertwined, over the span of about fifty years. Throughout the passage of time and the history of the world (wars, guerrilla movements, the spread of yellow fever, the coming and going of queer tourists, and love lost and found) the central crux of the story is the celebration of connection—however fleeting.
Fleeing to Nicaragua from Vienna during a worn-torn era, Pepa and her family settle in the jungle town of El Castillo. While there, Pepa’s parents contract yellow fever, leaving her to wander, learn about, and fall in love with both Nicaragua’s lush landscape, and its inhabitants. In particular, Pepa finds herself thrown into a love story with a local named Guillermo, who shows her how to find home in a new place, and a new way.
Pepa’s world comes further into chaos and heartbreak when her family abruptly decides to move to New York. Straddling the boundaries and borders of love, passion, and geography, Only the River shows two things simultaneously: what parallel universes can look like, writ large, and also the fragmentation that happens due to war, fleeing, and settlement. The idea of home, in people and places.
It is wonderful to see multi-generational narratives that involve queerness as fluidly as queerness happens—that is to say, queerness as normalized. Guillermo and his foray into blurred spaces with the two German lovers, Liliana, left by her wife and pining. In this novel, queerness is not a static land that one enters or leaves—it is as running and evolving and changing as the river around which this story revolves.
In our modern world, we need more depictions of love like this, more depictions of landscape like this, more depictions of what love can look like when it is told from many angles—with both the light and the dark. As in her novel about WWII (Winter Kept Us Warm), Raeff has a remarkable ability to be able to take us to new places—fantastical new places—on often well-trot soil. What’s more, the stories Raeff tells, and the fluency with which they are told, earn their place in a canon that is timeless, classic, and necessary. This is a triumph of a novel and a must-read for our times.