Parallel Universe in Aquavania in Aaron Starmer’s “The Riverman”

Myra here.

I am not really sure whether this Aaron Starmer novel fits our “science fiction” theme in the strictest sense of the word (I doubt if it would make the cut). His The Only Ones, which I read with great interest last year, may actually be a better fit.

Iphigene has outdone herself with this beautiful widget she created.
Iphigene has outdone herself with this beautiful widget she created.

However, since it features a parallel universe with Aquavania, I thought I might as well include it here as a featured novel.


Alistair Cleary is not a typical would-be-13-year-old boy. In this story, secrets are thrust into him for safe-keeping whether he likes to or not, because people see something in him. There is a sense that he can be trusted, and that he has vision as can be attested by his short story about aliens who visit Earth and pretend to be sixth-graders.

Fiona Loomis, his imaginative 13 year old neighbor who was once a close friend back when they were toddlers, comes to his home, apropos of nothing at all (they haven’t really been talking for years), bearing a birthday cake several months in advance, and armed with a very strange proposition (plus her dead grandfather’s jacket, and Kilgore the trusty tape recorder). Given his relative-talent with words and storytelling, Fiona wants Alistair to write her biography. Fiona is a strange character – and I mean that in a neutral-to-good way. I have always been drawn to quirky individuals who refuse to be defined by the people around them, and who are continually struggling to define and state their boundaries and be congruent with the voices and the images in their larger-than-life heads. For Fiona, this larger-than-life universe happens to be Aquavania.

This parallel universe reminded me of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story as it is fashioned primarily by whoever it is that is imagining the universe. There are rules in Aquavania that signify the maker’s boundaries or limitations, but it can essentially stretch as far as one’s imagination can conceive. It is a place where stories are born. When Fiona mentioned that she heard voices from the radiator and that touching it brings her to this parallel world, Alistair was rightfully skeptical and thought that Fiona was losing it. However, he was patient as he was intrigued. While there was initial rejection of the entire notion on Alistair’s part, he made a resolve to listen to Fiona:

After a long, dreamless sleep, I went to school with a renewed sense of purpose. I would listen to Fiona, listen carefully to what she was really saying. Cries for help aren’t always cries. Sometimes they’re stories. (p. 55)

For Alistair, however, really listening means listening with blinders on, with his preconceived notions of what is real and what isn’t. And so, he started reading more to the story than what is warranted – assuming that it is Fiona’s war-veteran uncle (the war, after all may have addled his brain) who is the villain in Fiona’s imagined tale. This assumption has taken on frightening proportions, especially as there are missing children, and Fiona herself was missing by the end of the story.

Then, there is Kyle, the delinquent young adult neighbor who is into cheap thrills, selling prohibited substances (Roman candles and bottle rockets among other things), and has been in conflict with the law several times. He is infamous in the community for being an unsavory and disreputable character, with everyone believing the worst in him. He is desperate for a fresh start, even if it means pretending that he’s dead, just so he can live a life other than what he has at the moment. He is, however, Alistair’s best friend’s older brother. And he has taken a protective liking to Alistair and even confides in him. To say that Alistair is overburdened with strange information that he does not know what to do with, not to mention how to deal with, would be an understatement.

Charlie, the bestfriend, is the typical video-addict, dragon-vanquishing virtual hero who is evidently smarter than he lets on, if his fairly-developed and relatively-eloquent vocabulary is any indication. Like Fiona, he is also an outsider, and his “waters run deep” (pun intended) is how I would describe him. Alistair describes him as such:

Kids had given up on teasing him back in fifth grade when it became obvious that you can call a guy Captain Catpoop all you want, but if he embraces the name by having it ironed into his own T-shirt, he basically has you beat.

This is a novel about the burdens of friendship, and how far a friend goes to protect someone he cares about – this applies to both the delinquent Kyle (who bought a gun for protection), and Alistair who is said to come from “good people”. It is also about imagination and its boundaries and the seams in between that connect it to otherworlds and infinite loops of universes – and how far removed these are (or are they, really?) from reality. Then there is the Riverman, of course, who sucks the living daylights out of make-believe by sapping its very essence, bleeding it dry and arid, colorless and lifeless, with missing children in its wake. And of course the penultimate question of whether Aquavania even exists in the first place. And if all this is true, with compelling factual evidence to support its very existence, how would one’s rational mind conceive it or restructure it or redefine it and still maintain one’s sanity.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about the book. I rated it a 4 out of 5 in Goodreads, even though I was sorely tempted to give it a 3 because of the horrid ending that leaves a reader feeling that the proverbial rug has been pulled out from underneath her. When I discovered that this is the first book in a trilogy, then it made more sense to me (“sense” being a relative word, and one that may not be the most apt term here). However, this is also a novel that has kept me up until 130 in the morning, and very few novels compel me to move on to the next page in wild anticipation of what happens next. It is a well-crafted, finely-honed story. I liked the tale-within-a-tale element to it – I particularly loved the father’s “Moral Number One: It’s always the second snake that gets you” and of course “The Legend of Fiona Loomis Parts I-VI. After reading the novel, I revisited the quote found at the very start of the book, and somehow the disconnected threads in my mind were appeased and were fairly content to remain where they are. At the moment.


Have you read the novel? How did you find it? Do share your thoughts.

The Riverman by Aaron Starmer. Published by Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014. Book borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library.



Reading Challenge Update: 231 (25)

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

1 comment on “Parallel Universe in Aquavania in Aaron Starmer’s “The Riverman”

  1. Pingback: An Amalgam of Mystery and Horror in Middle Grade Novel “The Nest” by Kenneth Opel with art by Jon Klassen | Gathering Books

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