‘Only the River’ travels the globe and spans decades to explore one family’s secrets

THE WASHINGTON POST – In the wake of her beautiful 2018 novel, Winter Kept Us Warm, Anne Raeff has created another richly memorable world in a complex mode – crisscrossing time and swaths of history, exploring one family’s intertwined impulses to find love, political drama and meaning.

Like its predecessor, Only the River draws us in at once with the quiet authority of its voice, promising to guide us with clarity and care.

In fact, multiple voices speak here, expertly mobilised. Central among them is that of Pepa, a New York widow of almost 85 as the novel opens. Pepa, who now runs a Spanish language bookstore, guards the secret (no spoiler) of her own likely terminal illness as she awaits a visit from grown daughter Liliana, whose longtime female friend has abruptly, inexplicably left her. Pepa’s tasks – to comfort her grieving daughter, hide her own discomfort with “something growing inside her” and find ways to carry forward despite present ordeals and the past losses of her husband and son – strike us as overwhelming, yet real. Pepa has determined that, rather than endure “the long decline,” she’ll let the apparent tumour “grow until there was no going back.”

By increments, we absorb the principals’ accrued stories. First (perhaps most urgently) comes that of Pepa’s youth, as her Viennese parents, who are doctors, flee the ravages of World War II with their daughter to Nicaragua, resolved to combat its rampant yellow fever. There, teenage Pepa falls in love with neighbouring Guillermo (whose earnest spirit, like that of every player in this saga, is tenderly conveyed). Together the two find solace in the magical, anarchic jungle.

One of Raeff’s signal strengths is to ground and immerse readers in the sensuous present of any era, in each setting’s vibrant textures and temperatures, however extreme. When Guillermo, who works as a youth on a rubber plantation, “his hands sticky from the sap. . . his boots thick with mud,” catches a baby caiman for young Pepa in the San Juan River, where the lovers spend much of their time, we smell the river, the humid air, the warm rain and constant decay.

But a terrible ordeal awaits Pepa when her parents decide to move to New York, and she is forced to leave her first, great love.

Difficult love is a sub-theme considered in two quiet narratives: that of Liliana, whose longtime lover, has left her, and that of two kind, educated German emigrants, Friedrich and Georg, photographers, who’ve built a secret retreat in the Nicaraguan jungle where they teach a young Guillermo to read. (This novel is suffused with passionate belief in arts and letters. “Though Guillermo didn’t fully understand the poems that Friedrich read, they made him feel. . . the kind of sadness that made him want to stay up all night listening to Friedrich read poems that he did not understand.”) A reader prays that, safe in their art-filled hideaway, all may go well for the Germans. But slowly, subtly, the two become poisoned by their outcast status, paralleling the fate of Anna Karenina and Vronsky.

Deceased Oskar, Pepa’s eventual husband, whose first family was destroyed in German concentration camps, carries his own astonishing story (including his poignant courtship of Pepa), told by stately turns. That story infuses Pepa’s and those of their grown children, Liliana and William, who will – uncannily yet believably – encounter individuals in Nicaragua intimately connected with their mother’s past.

One of many reasons Raeff’s work is so deeply pleasurable is the gripping concreteness of her characters’ bodies and natures. William, presumed dead in Nicaragua as a volunteer soldier during its heinous, Sandinista-Contra warfare, is a brooding idealist who’s also desperate to define himself away from the emotional tyranny, even suffocation, of his father’s tragic past. When news of William’s presumed death reaches the horrified family, Oskar says, “The body is not important. The only thing that matters is that he is dead.” Liliana did not argue, “because when it came to death, her father always had the last word.”

Through intricate interweavings of plot delivered in lean yet powerful, often poetic prose, “Only the River” ponders what the Germans call “the unanswerable questions . . . about the difference between courage and cowardice, weakness and strength” – the moving riddles of human confrontation with atrocity and possible redemption. It offers, with open hands, a complicated feast: irreconcilable impasses of character and event; what we can and cannot control. Epic and cinematic, wrought and soulful, it is a deeply serious novel, yet full of tenderness. In one lovely sequence, Pepa and Oskar dance on the Brooklyn Bridge, as Pepa sings. In fact, the novel makes its own soft, steady music, and its traces will haunt a reader’s heart and mind.