The River’s Memory
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| “Only this last piece matters.
Everything before it is inferior.” This is the creed of the
potter who narrates the first chapter of The River’s Memory,
Sandra Gail Lambert’s debut novel. The author, an avid
outdoorswoman, brings her intimacy with the Florida landscape to
this story about a spring-fed river in what is now Central
Florida. The potter is part of a clan of trading people with a
complex, intact culture who have heard only rumors of the ships
on the horizon that will become the European invasion of the
Americas. She is ruthless when it comes to protecting her space
and her freedom to make art, but not as ruthless or calculating
as her aunt, the clan’s leader, when it comes to protecting
The book is radical in both form and content, only in part because disdain for politics, and for politic behavior, is a characteristic that many of the novel’s women share. Although a historical novel, this is most emphatically not a family saga. None of Lambert’s main characters are weighed down with children, and so the conflicts they face are not about how to survive, or whether to reckon with their own deviance. They see themselves as outside of such concerns. Instead of human error or betrayal leaving indelible marks on generations, it is the land and water, the plants and the animals, that leave their mark.
The human thread of the novel, with its limited continuity, feels like an overarching comment on the insignificance of the individual. But in chapter after chapter, the river gives up anonymous human artifacts, often those made and lost by earlier characters. A little girl living in the mid-19th century frontier finds a wooden flute and a doll. A 20th century woman shrouds herself in mud after escaping from her job at a decaying theme park where Tarzan movies were once filmed. She clutches an arrowhead and a pottery shard that slip from her grasp, and a scarf turns into silk dust on her skin. The creators of the artifacts remain distant and nameless to those who find them. The river’s clay, its springs and massive cypress trees, its alligators and manatees, the curves of branch and bone wedged into its banks, are the inheritances that dictate the women’s experiences.
As the novel meanders back and forth across centuries, it is only right that its characters are that perfect combination of the mythic and the ordinary. In every era, they are people who drink from the river, and harvest its clay and its food. The river is a detached witness to their culture, to the climate, and to the slow transformations of geology. When I reached the end of this book, I immediately went back to the beginning, both for pleasure and out of a need to understand its structure, which is new, but not for novelty’s sake. The overarching plot is subtle as a pulse, and necessary as the sure knowledge of our inevitable deaths. One can only hope that Sandra Gail Lambert’s muse spoke through the potter, and that she, too, is driven to write new work that will become the last piece that matters, when everything before it seems inferior.
—Reviewed by Michele Leavitt