Shawna Ayoub moves "beyond the book review" in not only recommending great books by diverse writers, but highlighting a technique to apply to your own writing.
River Woman, River Demon, by Jennifer Givhan
In the novel River Woman, River Demon, Chicana writer Jennifer Givhan creates a protagonist that is believable because she could be any of us.
Eva Santos Moon enters her darkest days in this compelling murder mystery. She is already haunted by the drowning of her best friend years prior to when this novel takes place, and she finds herself adrift when her husband is arrested for the grisly murder of a colleague and friend. The murder taps into Eva’s deepest insecurities. The reader watches as she flounders by turning against her own intuition. We wonder whether Eva, too, will drown.
I’ve been there. Honestly, I might still be there, in that place where there are plenty of foot- and handholds, but they all feel slippery or slightly out of reach. Where reaching for them means looking into the darkness I’ve been avoiding.
Some truth is hard to face.
For Eva, those handholds exist as brujeria and curandería, witchcraft and folk medicine. Both of these practices are real-time tools that tap into her intuition and cast a net of protection over herself and her children. However, Eva is resistant to these deep connections. They are accompanied by literal haunting, and with that comes grief. Givhan beautifully manifests Eva's fear and pain through passages dripping with the sensory lyricism that reveal her as the poet she is (read my review of her poetry here).
No lie, reading this novel was almost as difficult as it was impossible not to continue. Watching Eva flounder is painful. She is a fully realized character I kept rooting for because I wanted to see her succeed. In fact, she was like a good friend in a sea of red flags; I wanted to steer her, but I knew she had to make her own choices. And that tension made for a riveting read because I genuinely wasn’t sure what kind of ending Eva was going to get. A book that keeps me guessing is a gem.
I actually finished reading this book several weeks ago. I’ve been thinking about how I wanted to connect it to writing. I keep asking myself, what are the signs we ignore? When have we not listened to our inner voices? How can we stir that discomfort in our readers that nonetheless propels them through to the end because they can’t stand not knowing what happens to the compelling characters we’ve created?
A writing exercise
Pose those questions to yourself about a story you want to tell, either about yourself or a created character: What are the signs I/the character ignore? When have I/the character not listened to my/their inner voice?
These are hard questions because they point directly to what we avoid. And if we are avoiding something, it’s likely due to discomfort. This prompt asks you to do what you don’t want to—see what your eyes slide away from. They are intuition questions, and answering them in writing will put you in touch with how you or your character truly feel, how you confront conflict or indecision, and what impulses win out over others. You’ll get to know yourself/your character better—and so will the reader. And a character we can understand, or want to understand, is a character we as readers will follow to their story's end.
Before you start to write, root yourself in knowing that any answer you write toward is okay. There is no good or bad. And after you write, take a moment to check in with yourself about how the writing felt.
Givhan is gifted in showing us what we do not want to see, but what we benefit from seeing. She is able to capture this in a way that shapes characters we can resonate with, characters that feel so real we become invested in their success. Characters that stay with us after the book is closed. Weeks after I read her, Eva has me thinking about what I’ve avoided doing/saying/writing.
Is it strange to say that I feel support from a novel to fully realize my best self? Because that’s what this novel does.
Will you try this exercise? Read this book? Share with us in the comments.
Buy River Woman, River Demon at Bookshop.org (and support independent bookstores across the U.S.)
Related reading: Beyond a Book Review: Timeline(s) in Becoming AppalAsian
Beyond a Book Review: Unwieldy Creatures
Beyond a Book Review: Containers as safe spaces in Nonwhite and Woman
Beyond a Book Review: Footnotes in Belly to the Brutal
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