Review – All Rivers Run Free by Natasha Carthew

A woman on the edge of the sea finds a girl on the edge of life.

I always used to say that no matter where I was in the world if you picked me up and dropped me down anywhere in Cornwall I would know I was home. There is something in the air, in the quality of the light. I feel I can always recognise a Cornish sky.

Natasha has captured that indefinable quality in All Rivers Run Free. I knew I was under a Cornish sky from the first turn of the page. Her practice of ‘wild writing’, that is writing outside, has enabled her to bring the feeling of the county to this book in a way that is natural, unaffected, not contrived.

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Ia stood at the water’s edge and watched the strands of silver light take flight about their heads they fell between the branches and staked themselves to the river. Shards of white going under and coming up colour . . .

The close, delicate observation and deep sense of place is beguiling. I was transported somewhere that was both instantly familiar and unsettlingly different.

The Cornish-born author Natasha Carthew writes all her books outside, talking on Radio Cornwall recently she said, “It’s something I’ve done from a very young age, I come from the village of Downderry and I’d walk the beach and write down my feelings.” This practice she says helps her tap into the weather and really connect to nature. It is unsurprising then that Natasha wrote most of All Rivers Run Free on the banks of the Tamar, “The book is based on the river, it’s a girl’s journey from source to sea.”

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Illustration by Jamie Whyte from All Rivers Run Free – Natasha Carthew

In this book the landscape of Cornwall is as much a character as the main protagonist, Ia Pendilly. As Ia ekes out a fierce life in a caravan on the coast, the sea is brooding benefactor whose rocky shores both protect and imprison. The waves uncover treasure and the tide ultimately brings Ia perhaps her greatest gift, the girl.

“Ia was the custodian of the ocean that was all, an observer perhaps protector of all the things that went mostly unnoticed. She could tell by the change of colour in the new tide the depth of the opaque fog in the surf just how the weather would turn. All seasons from new beginnings toward abrupt end she saw everything in that water . . .”

In the second part of the story the Tamar river is the steady if tumultuous rescuer that takes Ia through a flooded landscape in search of Ia’s sister. It is a powerful journey of body and spirit that take us past familiar landmarks such as the Tamar Lakes, Launceston, Morwellham Quay, Cotehele and the Tamar bridge. “To keep moving forward was to keep from thinking back.” And then into a world not too far from reckoning. This is a changed county. This is a threatening future that seems disturbingly recognisable.

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Natasha Carthew – author

But for me the wildness and lawlessness has a nostalgia to it. As if the characters all hang between worlds. Ultimately it feels a Cornwall of the past too. The people’s isolation makes me think of the bygone days when Cornwall was cut off in so many ways from the rest of the country. This dystopic future is also I felt a re-examination of a dark lawless past. There is poverty, crime, a breakdown of law and clannish unrest. The Cornish have returned to wrecking and grave-robbing as a way of staying afloat and the authorities, if there is still such a thing, don’t seem to venture over the Tamar.

“There were words she’d heard but didn’t understand, they came in twos: civil unrest, social collapse, internal warfare. Away from the cove these things took on new meaning became giants she imagined them hawking their misery from one coast to the next.”

All Rivers Run Free is so beautifully observed. The prose are hauntingly raw and veracious, often the deeply affecting. There were moments where I had to pause so that I could go back and read a sentence again, just for the sheer pleasure of it! This is a book of instantly believable lives that engulf and sweep you along with them. And despite it being a story of loss, guilt and grief it is above all else a story of the human capacity to hope against hope and to survive.

Natasha Carthew runs wild writing work shops and will taking part in the North Cornwall Book Festival 2019. (10th-13th Oct)

Further reading:

From Granite to Sea – A Review of Alex Langstone’s latest book

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