“The River Mouth” by Karen Herbert, is highly problematic.
I first heard of this book through the Writing WA newsletter, who are really quite great about pimping new books by local authors. Then one of the Big Reader September Author Talks came to my local library with the author of The River Mouth, Karen Herbert, David Whish-Wilson (one of my faves) and Dave Warner, a legitimate Rock Star.
Warner ran the microphone and was really quite entertaining. David WW was every bit the introvert I imagined and wasn’t given the chance to say much. Karen took full advantage of any opportunity to go on and on about her characters and her novels. If the microphone was near her, the context of whatever Warner, Whish-Wilson, or anyone in the audience were talking about mattered little to her single-minded focus on her own work. Interviews with Fremantle Press, among others, is much more of the same.
Aside from the author’s idiosyncrasies, the book itself is highly problematic, for several reasons. The first of which is that the writing isn’t very good. It started out with a bang though, the first chapter being barely more than a paragraph about Sandra, a middle-aged woman whose son was shot 10 years before and the murdered was never caught. Now her best friend has been found dead in the Pilbara and her DNA was under Darren’s (tbhe murdered son) nails.
POW, hit me with that and I’m HOOKED, baby. That’s awesome. But then the book proceeds to meander around this river mouth for the next 85%. Which I’d be fine with if the characters were interesting and our peek into their lives was captivating. It was NOT.
It had great promise, splitting the chapters in-between the grieving Sandra in present day and Colin, her son’s best friend (and the dead lady’s son) told from “23 days before Darren is shot”. I mean, it had real promise, and that’s the truth.
But the second chapter started to lose me almost instantly. I’m going to trot out some select paragraphs from the 2nd chapter, as transcribed from my copy here next to me:
“Look at that ranga!”
The voice came from the opposite direction and Colin turned his head and saw Darren and Tim walking down from the English block, their shirts untucked and their bags dragging halfway down their backs.
“Who let you out of the zoo?” Darren put his fists up and danced at Colin as he approached. He was in a good mood, thought Colin, and then remembered Darren’s last class was woodwork. Of course he was in a good mood. Anything that didn’t involve putting pen to paper made Darren happy. Colin, taller by five centimetres, took him in a headlock.
“Your mum. She thought you needed some company in the wild.” he rubbed his knuckles into the top of Darren’s head. “Why’s your head so small Daz? You can tell you’re descended from monkeys.”
Darren wrestled out of his grasp and punched him on the shoulder for his efforts.
“Ouch,” Colin protested, “you’re strong for a little squirt, aren’t you?” He feinted at him and Darren ducked, laughing.
“Stronger than you, ya big orange ape.”
“Says the kid who gets sunburnt watching the telly.”
Darren and Tim took their bags to the line forming behind Colin’s and walked back to the basketball fence.
“How’s the tech drawing?” asked Tim, looking down at his feet, his hands shoved into his pockets.
“Good.” Colin glanced at Tim and saw his face redden. It wasn’t the tech drawing he was interested in.
“You gonna ace it again this term?” Darren, this time.
“Fucking nerd.” He punched him in the arm, just hard enough to feel it.
“Fuck off, Darren.” Colin smiled anyway.
“Did you sit with Amy?” asked Tim, still examining his shoes.
“Course he did; that’s how he gets the marks,” said Darren.
Okay, SPOILER ALERT: Little, if anything, above has anything to do with the rest of the book. This, to me, was simply the author trying to show that these boys are… normal teenagers? I suppose in the writing classes they teach out there in Fremantle, they wouldn’t have accepted “The three boys were normal teenagers.” so Herbert had to waste 297 words not just going into the inanities of conversation (a big no-no for me, personally) but also drop seedlings of things that would have been interesting were they to ever be revisited again in the entire book.
SPOILERS AGAIN: They aren’t. Tim never does, nor says, anything to show any interest in Amy again. In fact, despite the occasional mention of Colin or Darren colouring or blushing, none of them show any interest in Amy to any degree that I would believe any 15-yo boy would show.
So they like rough-housing. And laughing. And punching each other on the arm. There’s a fair bit of that in the book too. SPOILERS: It never means anything, nor leads to anything, nor shows anything other than that the author seems to think that instead of trying to do anything to break the boredom of living in a remote town or trying to get into just about any girl’s pants, like what I would consider “normal” 15-yo boys to be, they just punch each other on the arm.
Oh, and one time when Darren looks like he’s going to dive into the too-shallow river water, Tim and Amy scream for him not to, both showing significant reactions while Darren is mid-air in what is likely less than a full second. When he changes his form and does a bombie, Tim is so upset he grabs his things and goes home. I don’t even know teenage girls who would act this way, and they are supposedly the more emotional of the two sexes (SPOILERS: They’re not, it’s equal).
Other than Herbert using a lot of words to try and show she knows how 15-year old boys both think and act (SPOILERS: She doesn’t) there is Sandra, who is interesting enough though seems like she’s kind of difficult to deal with. The one characters (yes, the one) who is super interesting and captivating is Sandra’s recently-deceased best friend, Sandra, whose DNA was under Darren’s fingernails after he died. This discovery gets out and leads simply everyone in the entire town to believe that Sandra shot Darren. Everyone but Sandra.
I just wrote “Sandra shot Darren” and that’s a typo, but I leave it there to illustrate a point. By the time I’m into the fifth chapter, I can’t remember who anyone is beside’s Sandra, and even then I get lost when we’re talking about Sandra’s mum, then there’s Barbara’s daughter, Rebecca. There’s also a few others with plain names and I had zero way to keep track. The only people with interesting names were the Indigenous family.
Which… brings me to the BIGGEST PROBLEMS WITH THIS BOOK.
This book was published in 2021 and the author is a middle-aged white woman from Geraldton who freely confesses she writes because she can afford to (because of husband’s job) and made it most of the way through this manuscript without knowing who the murderer was. I, for one, can see without exaggeration that I could absolutely, 100% and without a doubt, tell. It shocked me Not One Iota to find this information out. But I digress about how this white woman writes. There’s several major ways that she takes a giant shit on First Nations Peoples in this book too.
ACTUAL SPOILERS: One of the major plotlines, another juicy thread to follow, was the Weymouth Rapist. Many believe that Darren could identify him, so that’s who shot him. He’s a vile and horrific rapist, targeting young girls in their own bedrooms. The horror of this is barely even hinted at, same as the young incestual rape victim that comes into Sandra’s shift at the Hospital.
Now, I KNOW it’s an actual, factual problem in certain communities when a father or grandfather is guilty of incest with his own daughter or granddaughter. I KNOW it’s happened in First Nations communities and there are probably heaps of studies done on how common it is there as opposed to other races/cultures/locales. But, if you’re going to feature it in your fucking novel, have it make a fucking point. It does not. It illustrates nothing, it is character growth for no one and it advances not one single plotline. NOT ONE. It’s just there because sometimes bad shit happens and it’s good to talk about it.
Except for one thing. The OTHER BAD THING happening, all the rapings. As an “oh, by the way” sentence or two in the final pages of the book, those are the incestuous pedophile grandfather’s son. Oh, and he also killed his partner and for some reason Darren’s dad decided to hide the body under his car, where he often invites COPS and others to party, instead of taking her out on the friggin’ boat that he goes out in EVERY DAY and dumping her in the ocean. But again, there I go digressing.
So yes. The ONLY First Nations family mentioned in any detail in the book… the only characters described as Indigenous… have a grandfather who is a pedo, incestuous, raping shitshow of a fucking human. And the Weymouth Rapist.
Oh, and the surprise twist that Rebecca’s baby isn’t Darren’s is that it belongs to the boy from the ONLY First Nations family in the book. So while the third generation isn’t a vile raping piece of shit, he’s just a deadbeat dad.
EXCEPT NOT AWESOME. PROBLEMATIC. PROBLEMATIC AS FUCK.
Not problematic enough, though, for anyone to mention it. A simple Googling shows several notable reviews/interviews that all tout Herbert’s “gripping debut novel”. None of them mention any of its problems.
Another truncated piece that has little to say about anything specific, leading me to think there wasn’t anything specific to say.
The AU Review has much of the same, though they at least reference things that are both good things and bad about the novel. Though I can’t figure out how it still managed 4-stars when they admit “some of the big reveals felt like they came out of nowhere” (SPOILERS: All of them did).
Emma Young Writes was really, really nice in her review. Too nice, I thought, but then again she wrote “Herbert’s rendering of 15-year-old Darren and his two best friends in the weeks and days approaching the shooting are pitch-perfect.” Because they punch each other in the shoulder, probably.
Beauty and Lace, Bookclub wrote a cerebral, well-thought-out piece that is the first I’ve seen to actually call out the sins of the novel in the form of nuanced social commentary. Which it very well might be, and I’m just being overly-harsh.
Mysteries in Paradise is the first to finally mention anything about the Indigenous characters, “I thought there were hints that various of the characters may have indigenous background but perhaps I missed out on picking up on when that was more clearly stated.”
No mention how the book’s Worst Villains are nearly all Indigenous though.
She also mentions, “The final resolution to who killed Darren, and why, seems to come out of left field, but there were hints among all the red herrings.” but still gives it 4.4 stars though, so clearly it wasn’t an issue.
Annie Wilson Books does an interview with Herbert, having gone to the same Writing Class as her. This is perhaps the most-telling of anything I’ve read (or listened to) about why the novel ended up the way it did, though I really didn’t need to read “both laugh” in the interview any more than I needed Herbert to tell me that Darren pretended to box Colin, laughing.
Herbert herself says, “I wanted to hold up a mirror to the community without whitewashing it or glossing over stuff. For me that meant including people in the community that I’ve had a lot to do with in my life; older people, homeless people, people with disabilities. The more I started to write the story…and be unflinching about what that looks like… and talked about it to other people, the more I started to understand just how much those people are invisible in the community, and invisible in literature, and I think that probably made me more determined to have invisible people quite clearly portrayed in the story and as part of the storyline – not as just a background Greek chorus.” yet fails to see how she took one Major Aspect of the Entire Fucking Novel and pinned it squarely on First Nations People. Tonedeaf… party of one!
A Shot in the Dark, from Fremantle Press Youtube Channel, feat. Jane Seaton who owns that awesome bookstore on Beaufort St. Okay, at this point I’m starting to think that a whole bunch of middle-class white women got given this book by another middle-class white woman and told that it was Really Good and how important it was to spruik it. I feel like I’m being pranked, Jane loves it so much. The sycophantic nature of these (and other) interviews with Herbert make me wonder if her husband is the Czar of something or a Mob Boss that everyone is terrified of. How is no one bothered by the problems of this book?
The writing is sub-par, the plot is convoluted and wandering and the Whodunnit at the end is poorly-handled. In fact, almost everything about the novel is poorly-handled. It reads like this is her first novel (SPOILERS: It’s not, it’s her second, but it was the first published) but she forgot to do more than one draft. I’m actually severely disappointed in the editors at Fremantle Press for letting this one through because even if they could be forgiven for doing a favour for someone and publishing their unpolished work, they should be ashamed of themselves for what they’ve done to First Nation Peoples.
Now, I’m not one to go around Woke-Scolding anyone usually. I think I’d be doing the First Nations People a disservice if I were to think I were helping them by getting angry on their behalf. But I’m not angry, and it’s not on their behalf. I’m bothered by this because I believe in fighting for equality by taking every opportunity to focus on what can be done to mitigate the negativity aimed at the marginalised in our society. And also, while I, a Middle-Aged, Middle-Class White Male, know I am not qualified nor comfortable making any of my First Nations characters (or any marginalised segment of society) the Big Bads, I strongly feel like this Middle-Aged, Middle-Class White Female shouldn’t either.
TLDR; If you don’t have to, don’t take an already-marginalised segment of society and make them the Big Bad. Straight White Males, statistically, cause most of the damage in Western Culture. Make them the Big Bad. If you have to make a First Nations character do bad things, make it for a reason.
Also, and this is just a tip from me, but when the whole book is about someone being shot, you should Know Who Did It before you write the rest of the book.