My take on ‘Into the River’

review by Melanie Wittwer

After all the recent furore about Ted Dawe’s Into the River I thought I’d better read it myself to find out what all the fuss is about. Yes, the whole book. And I encountered a beautiful piece of writing.
It is a shame that that all this noise about inappropriateness seems to have drowned out of the book’s literary merit. It won a major prize after all.
In Into the River we follow young Te Arepa on his path to growing up to become a disillusioned Devon. Country boy encounters the big city, within the microcosm of a boarding school. Two sets of cultural values clash. There is emotional carnage.
The young reader will have been exposed to a whole lot of very beautiful literature before he or she arrives at the now infamous explicit content. What the outrage about the book has achieved is that readers will now skip large parts of this well-written and profound story to get to the offending bits. It is their loss. The explicit content is there for a reason and serves the purpose to portray Te Arepa as a conflicted young man, trying to find his place in the world, making mistakes along the way. Trial, error, disappointment. It is a story of hope and sadness, a classic coming of age story.
What profoundly upset me – as a reader, not personally – in this book is the story of Steph, a Holden Caulfieldesque character – suave, yet tragic – and by extension the story of Briggs, an older ‘Steph’ further down the track. There is no explicit content accompanying this back story. I should not say back story here, as the unease brewing in the background is a central theme to the story. To me, Steph’s demise and the underlying unresolved serious issues is the ultimate tragedy here.
I think 15 is a good age to read this book. What harm is there in reading that life is not all shopping and x-factor? However much fun that is.
Discount the intellectual ability of our youth at your peril, and theirs.


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