Prepare to be beguiled by beautiful prose in this tale of love, death and identity,
The River Sings by Sandra Leigh Price, HarperCollins.
The first thing that strikes you about this rich and lyrical novel is the language. Author Sandra Leigh Price is a beautiful wordsmith and her at times magical, often brutal, fable based on the English gypsies who were transported to Australia in the 1800s beguiles with its lilting prose pregnant with Romany phrasing.
“My inspiration for The River Sings came in three striking images,” Sandra tells The Australian Women’s Weekly. “One was the Romany tradition of burying dead children by the side of the road with acorns in their palms so that they’d always be near the road and never lonely or forgotten.
“The other was the idea of dolls and objects as holders of memory – in particular, the young Princess Alexandrina (later Queen Victoria) and her fascination with dolls. And lastly, my convict ancestor’s house, which still stands in Richmond, NSW. I was fascinated by the turnaround of his fortune within a short time and the idea of emotional damage transportation caused families left behind.”
The story opens in 1819 on a rural Romany camp in England with the vivid scene of Patrin, the daughter of Romany gypsies Josiah and Sarah, giving birth. Josiah is catching rabbits as Patrin’s waters break and he and Sarah take their daughter into the freezing swirling river for a water birth.
The wider “kin” insist on a later baptism, superstitiously fearing bad luck, but Patrin knows her daughter is a “Riverling” (her private name for the tot), who was naturally baptised the minute she was born.
When dad Amberline sees his daughter, he gives her a silver heart, which he has fashioned from a sixpence, and names her Eglantine after his mother, who lives in London. The action then jumps and we find six-year-old Eglantine living with her father and a housekeeper in a chic house in London, with no sign of the child’s mother Patrin.
Amberline is teaching his daughter the art of pickpocketing, which is at the heart of his duplicitous stock and trade. Eglantine is a confused little girl, desperate to please her father, unaware of her Romany heritage yet clearly drawn to her watery destiny.
What happens next is a complex tale of love and death (including a hanging), guile and innate nature, as Eglantine is buffeted between her father’s brash, dark and devious world, her inner gypsy and a new love who offers life in a brave new world – Australia’s New South Wales.
Watch out for a fabulous rat-catching episode in Kensington Palace and some prophetic Romany royal palm-reading deliciously woven into our heroine’s complex and engrossing journey.
Patrin knows her daughter is a ‘Riverling’ (her name for the tot), who was naturally baptised the minute she was born.