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Review in the Vancouver Sun

RIVER DEEP
A small-town tale of fishermen, salmon and the mighty Fraser prove Tim Bowling worthy of the title BC Writer.


It begins right in the first few pages: Fog. Rain. River surface. Tim Bowling is one of the few BC writers who understand they inhabit an area of almost mythic beauty and history. And it is Bowling's power as a poet - he's published three collections - that comes into play in Downriver Drift, his first novel.

Bowling marries two narratives, two frames of reference and two perspectives, and although at first it seems he's slowing the narrative down - showing off by padding the writing with similes - the technique ultimately pays off.

The first narrative is the story of the Mawsons, a fishing family living in the 1970s in the small town of Chilukthan, a fictional village on the Fraser River. Bowling opens with the gloom of early spring rain. Vic Mawson, the father, is worried because his wife Kathleen is depressed and can't get out of bed. Fishing has been bad, canneries are offering pitiful money and a strike seems inevitable.

Their three children, seven-year-old Zoe, teenaged Troy and 22-year-old Corbett, tiptoe around their mother's illness, trying not to get too involved. . . Bowling weaves in glimpses of the story from another perspective in almost the same way film director Terence Malick (The Thin Red Line) has his characters, in the midst of grievous conflict and violence, turn to the camera and speak their inner thoughts. These monologues produce a distancing effect that paradoxically intensifies the drama.

Midway through Downriver Drift comes a marvelous scene, a turning point. Some cruel teenagers bait a line with fish guts and induce a gull to take the hook. When Vic and union rep Ed Leary discover them, they drop the fishing rod and run away. Vic and Ed must reel the bird in and kill it to relieve its terror and pain. This moment resonates, representing all the life and death that surrounds the fishermen and their families in this small town. Here, the writing deepens.

Spring gives way to summer. Kathleen's depression lifts, and more and more of the real tale becomes that of a disappearing way of life. With increasing power, Bowling tells the story of the river world around which his characters live and die:

"In June the freshlet swelled the Fraser's currents. The snow melt poured into the upper reaches of the river. . . and finally rushed the murky tides over the broad flats and marshes, shooting a huge plume of silt from the mouth all the way to the shores of the Gulf Islands. . . A whole world tumbled unseen to the coast, a world of mud and trees, drowned livestock, industrial chemicals, sacked kittens, used condoms, runaway logbooms, dead fish, bottles and assorted trash, untreated effluent and wrecked cars."

A few weeks later:

"Increased sunshine dried the fields. . . at twilight, children marvelled at the gigantic shadows cast on the grass and sidewalks. . . Somewhere in the Pacific, hundreds of thousands of Stuart River sockeye had heard the inexplicable cry of home and were rushing south for the Fraser estuary. . . And so the mouth of the Fraser hung open, like the night sky in the hour before the stars appear, a vastness without definition."

Having thus established his world, Bowling, like one of the characters in a Malick movie, steps front and centre and in a soft voice speaks a wonderful passage that I wish I could quote in full:

"It was one of the last seasons for porches and vacant lots, for children whistled home from solitary games and for the river's dominance. All the old ghosts had begun to fade, their figures vanished from the skiff and plough, their lust and romance unread, their drifts and furrows creased. . . It was one of the last seasons for silence, for walking out under stars with only your heartbeat and your breath, for picking fruit in wild orchards and for befriending stray animals. The traffic on the highway would never again fall quiet, exhaust would obscure the mountains in brown haze, and eagles would die in the fields from pesticides leached out in the rain. . ."

There are many similar though less sustained passages in Downriver Drift. If you love the Fraser, if you are curious to know about the lives of local fishermen, you could hardly do better than read this book.

-Bruce Serafin, Vancouver Sun April 22, 2000