Robin Bower’s My River Sanctuary is a story about family and intermingling cultures set in the lush backdrop of Perth, Australia. The book touches on many themes that I love reading about such as cultural identity, racism, refugees, mental illness, family dynamics, and war. Unfortunately, the story suffers from trying to juggle so many themes at once. Sometimes a topic is brought up so abruptly it feels shoved in and irrelevant to the rest of the story.
The story is told through the perspectives of four main characters: Kim, a third generation Chinese-Australian; Ayden, her young adult son; Ara a teenage Afghanistan refugee; and Jack, the father of Ayden who hasn’t returned to Australia in 20 years.
Kim and Ayden live right next to Swan River which runs through Perth and serves as the beautiful backdrop in which most of the story takes place. Kim is a horticulturist with a passion for gardening. From her perspective, you could see how someone’s life could be defined by the local community and the river that runs through it. Not to mention Jack and Ayden who practically live on the water. In that sense, the book lives up to its title.
Despite all the sociopolitical themes, the story’s true focus is on the relationships between characters and how they develop over time. This focus is where some of the book’s greatest strengths and major flaws can be found. Some of the main characters are much more developed than others, and the contrast is stark seeing as perspective changes between characters often.
The book focuses heavily on the experiences of Kim and Ara as being minorities in Australia. In Kim’s perspective, there is a lot of focus on trying to preserve culture throughout generations. She reflects on the Chinese heritage that was passed down to her by her father, and what she has tried to pass onto her son. Her perspective beautifully shows how family and culture organically change with every generation.
Ara on the other hand, is a refugee who lost her family trying to escape Afghanistan. The book does a good job painting the grim realities of life under the Taliban and the desperation of those trying to escape it. The most well-written and heart-wrenching moments in the story revolve around Ara’s traumatic experiences trying to get to Australia, and the harsh discrimination she faces once she arrives.
Unfortunately, the other main characters in the book fall a bit flat. Jack starts out as an interesting character but doesn’t have any meaningful development until the end of the book, and by that time it feels forced and unnatural. Ayden on the other hand, starts out as an unsympathetic jerk (to put it nicely). He has no real signs of changing until halfway through the book when a figurative switch is flipped, and he’s a white knight from that point onwards. The book would have been stronger had the author chosen to cut Jack and Ayden’s perspectives or taken more care in their character development.
The Dialogue between the characters also has some incredibly clunky moments. The worst offenders are Jack (as a teenager), and Ayden. Their dialogue often sounds unnatural coming from young adults, often saying things that don’t seem to match their personalities or age group.
The book also suffers from a lack of forward momentum. A major mechanism used for character development is going back in time to defining moments in a character’s life. To do this characters spend a lot of time reminiscing about the past, and chapters will often start a few decades in the past. Character perspectives are also switched with every chapter, but the back and forth between this and time isn’t handled with enough skill to prevent it from breaking narrative flow.
Overall this book feels like it collapsed under the pressure of trying to do too much at once. It took on an overabundance of sociopolitical topics, multiple perspectives, and jumping between time periods, but was unable to weave them together into a compelling story. Instead, they competed for attention, diluting the quality of the story in general. I would love to read a book which handled all of these topics well, but unfortunately, the flaws of this book outweigh its strengths.
by Robin Bower
My River Sanctuary is the story of a Chinese-Australian woman, Kim Chen, who is a descendant of one of the first Chinese immigrants who came to Western Australia in the 1880s.
On the banks of the Swan River in Perth, she continues her father’s legacy of having a Chinese urban farm. She has a son, Ayden, born to her first love, Jack, the boy next door who has left her to work as a war photographer in Afghanistan. Kim struggles to keep her farm profitable and her son only wants to go kayaking on the Swan River. With the assistance of the Immigration Department, she enlists the help of Ara, an Afghan refugee awaiting release into the community.
Kim’s dream is to develop a world garden, a garden that encompasses plants from the countries of all the migrants who have settled in Perth, and create a self-sustaining business from the produce. She faces opposition from her competitors, her neighbours, and eventually must fight to save her identity, her son and her land. Like the Swan River, the story flows through memory, loss ad a family struggling against the tide.