If You Cross the River
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2020 PEN TRANSLATION PRIZE
From celebrated Belgian author Geneviève Damas, a modern fable about friendship, self-determination, and the power of education.
Illiterate, isolated, and held at arm’s length by a bitter father, François Sorrente has spent his seventeen years within narrow confines. By day he tends the family farm’s pigs; by night he manages the household chores. Still, François can’t help but wonder about the wider world and his place in it. Who was his mother, who he remembers not at all? And why is the opposite shore of the river, where his beloved older sister disappeared many years ago, forbidden to him?
Propelled by curiosity, François turns to the eclectic denizens of his town to help make sense of these mysteries. He begins reading lessons with a melancholy curé, falls into an affair with a village woman, and affectionately confides his secrets to a velvet-eared piglet named Hyménée. As François questions both his origins and the course of his life, he begins to unlock the true story of his mother and sister, and comes to reinvent himself.
Exquisitely translated from the French by poet Jody Gladding—in the spiky syntax of one whose world is rapidly shifting and evolving—If You Cross the River is a striking debut.
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Praise and Prizes
"[An] excellent novel . . . Readers will connect immediately with François and yearn, as he does, to uncover what happened across the river . . . [If You Cross the River] packs a satisfactory punch."
"An allegorical coming-of-age story told in a trusting and curious voice . . . Damas keeps us enthralled as [François] unravels the family mystery."
"As translated by American poet Gladding [François's] authentically rendered thoughts, startling discoveries, and creeping awareness of danger made for an intriguing, fable-like tale of words' capacity to liberate."
“Geneviève Damas’s voice is on the border between silence and language, the message and the truth. This novel is a tribute to the liberating power of literature.”
“The power of words and filiation are at the heart of this novel, which tells the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who tries to extricate himself from a miserable life by learning to read and seeking to elucidate the mystery of his birth.”
“Geneviève Damas writes with such intensity, such fluidity. This extraordinary novel is suffused with silence, loneliness, violence, and the desire to escape a miserable life, a deep desire to know oneself and others. We are both seduced and upset by this touching story, which is not hard to imagine on the big screen.”
“To describe the plot would be to deprive readers of the emotional journey Geneviève Damas invites us into with breathtaking mastery. As with all great novels, this one holds the reader until the last word, and the protagonist’s questions—about illiteracy, family secrets, mourning, loneliness, and tenderness—become our own.”
“Geneviève Damas’s first novel is a masterpiece. The spirit of generosity at the core of this book is staggering.”