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As Rivers Flow

John Saul

" The ripples that run through the frame of the ship, up its length and back again. Always the sea. Day and night, sea, sleep and food. Stay in as much as you can and keep out of the wind…Fill the ship’s pool. See the decks are cleaned on fine days if at all.…"

Reviewed by Melissa Lee-Houghton

Saul is a significant prose writer whose technique and intellect show pure workmanship in his stories. There is no drivel, it is all wrought steadily and carefully and so seamlessly it is almost impossible to find fault-lines. 

The first two stories, Mersey and Elbe have remained the most enduring for me; Saul takes the word "let" and gives it a pang of bittersweet sadness, then makes a whole story teeter on it. Elbe is a masterwork, and I would be surprised if the author did not regard it highly amongst his own work. Three separate narratives intertwine, but barely. The effect is expertly readable, and there are no awkward trails. The story itself is again characterized by episodes of emotion and personal introspection, focused on the physical turning of an immense cargo ship in the Elbe. The changes in reverie, and changes of heart happen during the churning of the water, the tugging of the ship in transition to send in the other direction. The characters seem very alone, and almost as though they have isolated themselves, unwittingly or not. One speaks broadly and perhaps too honestly. One has a heart in-check, and the sailor out at sea for just-endurable durations is lost to the continuity of sailing, the sky, and feelings which are like carrying freight. 

Seine is limber, cosmopolitan, and follows the meanderings of a philosopher in Paris, flushed with melancholy for a gone relationship. The main character seemed like Moses Herzog, from Saul Bellow's novel; in his ineffability with regards to love. The philosopher's mind had been long addled with greater things, with books and ideas.

After years of living with Marianne, he remembers just a handful of the things she said. 

I want to sleep. 

I want to sleep in your bed. 

I want to sleep in your bed with you. 

The story is sharp and filled with the language and scenery of a sad French film. 

In Butley, a man nearly falls over a couple in the countryside and then goes with the strangers to a small boat off-shore. It's enigmatically turbulent, and does not rely on the art of seeing how far a story can be pushed. Subtlety winds the tale into a deliciously anxious climax. 

Saul can write descriptive prose of such quality that one is always aware of the sky, and weather, and the exact tone of the dialogue, which is not written in inverted commas but rather interlocuted within the prose, oozing poetic resonance. His almost obsessive depictions of nature, sea, sun, sky etc. are something even one of his characters picks up on in Stour: Skying means recording the moods of the sky. 

The final story, Tagus, takes us through the vivid imaginative wanderings of a broken hearted man. More than just being a clever story, it evokes a lover's tragedy in a new way. The descriptions of this pseudo journey are magical, and then the reality flashes back in helplessly emotionally provocative lines like "I miss you. I don't accept there could be a good life without you." The writer knows exactly how and when to involve us. 

As Rivers Flow is a beautifully conceived collection which marries the physicality of nature, of flowing rivers and ebbing sea tides, and adds human sorrow, loss, and also love.

Read an excerpt from this collection on  SaltPublishing.com

 Melissa Lee-Houghton is a poet and author of Patterns of Mourning by Chipmunka Publishing,and has poetry upcoming in Tears in the Fence 51.

Melissa's other Short Reviews: Philip Shirley "Oh Don't You Cry For me"

Jason Brown "Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work"

Delmore Schwartz "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities"   

David Gaffney "Aromabingo"

Elizabeth Baines "Balancing on the Edge of the World"

Publisher: Salt Modern Fiction

Publication Date: 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?: No

Awards: Longlisted, 2009 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

Author bio: John Saul is the author of a forthcoming novel from Salt Publishing, and two previous short story collections, Call it Tender and The Most Serene Republic He was born in Liverpool, was educated in Oxford and Paris and now lives in Suffolk.

Read an interview with John Saul

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The Publisher: Salt Modern Fiction


The Author's Recommended Bookseller: Browsers Bookshop (UK)


Book Depository


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Ernest Hemingway "The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories" 

Malcolm Bradbury(ed) "The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories"

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