The International Booker Prize Reading Challenge: Not a River, by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott

I’m absolutely thrilled to have been chosen as a Reading Ambassador for The International Booker Prize 2024 Reading Challenge. The International Booker Prize is awarded annually to the best single work of fiction from around the world, which has been translated into English and published in the UK and/or Ireland, and the Reading Challenge is a self-guided reading challenge that encourages readers around the world to explore the 2024 longlist, share their thoughts, and connect with fellow International Booker Prize fans. 

I’m beginning my International Booker Prize Reading Challenge with Not A River by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott, and published by Edinburgh-based independent publisher Charco Press. I was drawn to this title for several reasons: firstly, I’ve been looking for a Latin American novel to choose for our next wine tasting book club, and secondly, I’ve yet to read a Charco Press novel that hasn’t been exquisitely translated, and brilliantly thought-provoking! There’s also a wonderful tactility to Charco Press publications, with their European-style ‘French flap’ covers, and thick, premium paper, that always makes them a joy to read. I have to admit that I was also drawn to Not a River’s vibrant green and pink cover, and at just under 100 pages in length, it didn’t seem too daunting a work to start with!

Photo by Victoria Vettese

Not a River has so many elements that I love in a novel: a strong sense of setting (in this case the lush riverside and woods of an island in rural Argentina), and atmospheric descriptions that got under my skin, staying with me for days after finishing it. It’s also difficult to pin down the precise genre of the novel: is it a coming-of-age tale, a thriller, or a horror? Perhaps most importantly, it managed to plunge me into an entirely new world of vivid and believable characters, before whisking me back out again, blinking, into my daily life. 

The novel describes a fishing trip undertaken by two middle-aged men, Enero and El Negro, who are accompanied by Tilo, the teenaged son of their friend, Eusebio. The trio visit a favourite fishing spot, three years after a terrible accident occurred there, with the narrative switching back and forth in time to their childhood and youth. Later, it takes up the story of two young local girls who cross their path, also showing the thoughts and inner monologues of the girls’ mother and uncle. 

For a short book, there is so much depth to Not a River, which explores questions of masculinity, grief, and environmental concerns. I rarely have time to read at my desk in the bookshop, but having started it in the morning over coffee I hopefully took it with me to work, eager to continue reading it. I think that it would make an excellent book club choice, as it offers so much scope for discussion and interpretation. My warning to anyone embarking on reading it, however, would be ‘read this carefully’ - blink and you’ll miss some vital hints in the second part of the novel. Overall, my rating of it would hover somewhere between four and five stars.

You can read an excerpt from the novel here.

     If he looks farther on, to where the road slopes down he can just about see the river. A glint that makes his eyes water. And again: it's not a river, it's this river. He's spent more time with it than with anyone.
    What gave them the right!
    It wasn't a ray. It was that ray. A beautiful creature stretched out in the mud at the bottom, she'd have shone white like a bride in the lightless depths. Flat on the riverbed or gliding in her tulle, magnolia from the water, searching for food, chasing transparent larvae, skeletal root. Hooks buried in her sides, the tug-of-war all afternoon till she can't fight any more. The gunshots. Pulled from the river to be thrown back in later.

- From Not a River, by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott

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