Three men go out fishing in rural Argentina, returning to a favourite spot on the river despite their memories of a terrible accident there years earlier. Can another tragedy be avoided?

Whether you’re new to Not a River or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide, featuring insights from critics, our judges and the book’s author and translator, as well as discussion points and suggestions for further reading. 
 

Written by Emily Facoory

Publication date and time: Published

Synopsis

Three men go out fishing, returning to a favourite spot on a river in Argentina, despite their memories of a terrible accident there years earlier. As a long, sultry day passes, they drink and cook and talk and dance, and try to overcome the ghosts of their past. But they are outsiders, and this intimate, peculiar moment also puts them at odds with the inhabitants of this watery universe, both human and otherwise. The forest presses close, and violence seems inevitable, but can another tragedy be avoided?

The main characters

Enero

A childhood friend of El Negro and Eusebio, he lost a finger while cleaning his firearm not long after Eusebio died. 

El Negro

Close to his childhood friends, El Negro considered Enero’s mother Delia – and his five sisters – as the closest things to a mother he’d ever known after losing his own mother at birth.

Tilo

Tilo is the teenage son of Eusebio, Enero and El Negro’s recently deceased friend. He joins the two older men on a fishing trip to the Paraná River. 

About the author

Selva Almada is considered one of the most powerful voices of contemporary Argentinian and Latin American literature and one of the most influential feminist intellectuals of the region. Compared to Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Sara Gallardo and Juan Carlos Onetti, Almada has published several novels, a book of short stories and a book of journalistic fiction. She has also published a film diary, written on the set of Lucrecia Martel’s film Zama, based on Antonio di Benedetto’s novel. She has been a finalist for the Medifé Prize, the Rodolfo Walsh Award and of the Tigre Juan Award. Her work has been translated into French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Swedish and Turkish. Not a River (shortlisted for the Vargas Llosa Prize for Novels) is her fourth book to appear in English after The Wind that Lays Waste (Winner of the EIBF First Book Award 2019), Dead Girls (2020), and Brickmakers (2021).

Portrait of author Selva Almada

About the translator

Annie McDermott is the translator of a dozen books from Spanish and Portuguese into English. McDermott has translated such writers as Mario Levrero, Selva Almada, Fernanda Trías and Lídia Jorge. In 2022, she was awarded the Premio Valle Inclán for her translation of Joseph Zárate’s Wars of the Interior.

Portrait of translator Annie McDermott.

What the critics said

Publishers Weekly

‘The novel becomes more ethereal and ghostlike in the second half, and Almada particularly excels at depicting her characters’ fragility and vulnerability: “Ties here are made of cobwebs…. One little breeze and they break,” one character says. Like a dream, this otherworldly tale lingers in the reader’s mind.’

El periódico

‘This is a narrative of great depth in which the settings (the river, fishing, the island) emerge from a very powerful poetic narration that keeps quiet more than it says aloud, that omits more than it recounts, a dreamlike voice marked by an infinite and familiar wound anchored in a dialectic between dreams and an indestructible future.’

Chicago Review of Books

‘Almada is forceful in her depictions of sex, violence, and rage. I feel her prose in my body: a punch in the gut, the sharpness of glass. McDermott’s translation captures the bite of Almada’s sentences, which render both tenderness and violence with devastating clarity.’

Morning Star

‘What makes the book compelling is how the author explores issues of domestic violence, state complicity, machismo and family negligence, along with class and social inequalities, in a non-sentimental prose which is all the more effective as result.’

The Big Issue

‘This is a powerful read…[Almada’s] effective use of fiction ensures a deep empathy in her readers which strict reportage sometimes fails to evoke.’

What the International Booker Prize judges said:

Not A River moves like water, in currents of dream and overlaps of time which shape the stories and memories of Enero and El Negro, the adult friends and default mentors of young Tilo, whom they have brought with them on a fishing trip along the Paraná River. The island where they set up camp pulses with its own desires and angers, tensions equal to if not exceeding those of the men who have come together on its shores. Alongside the story of these grief-marred men, Almada wages small and tender resistances through the women of the town – and what luck to root for or mourn them – the mother whose ever-growing fires engulf us, her two flirtatious, youth-glowed daughters, and the almost-mythical manta ray who becomes one of the guardians and ghosts of this throbbing, feverish novel.’

Group photo of the International Booker Prize 2024 Judges; Romesh Gunesekera, Natalie Diaz, William Kentridge, Eleanor Wachtel and Aaron Robertson.

Questions and discussion points

Almada uses short sentences that take on a more lyrical construction in Not a River. The translator, Annie McDermott says in her Translator’s Note at the end of the book that Almada’s work ‘is defined by her ability to capture the patterns and rhythms of everyday speech and turn them into spare, perfectly-weighted poetry.’ To what extent do you agree with her interpretation?

The topic of masculinity is included in numerous ways within Not a River – for example, in the ego-driven behaviours that arise and the way the main character process their grief. With Almada writing not from a male experience, would you say she relays these experiences in a more effective way because she has an objective point of view?

Annie McDermott said in her Translator’s Note that, ‘the line breaks and lack of chapter divisions make the text itself river-shaped, its short sentences lapping at the silence like waves on the shore.’ Do you think that the way the story is structured represents a flowing river? What are some examples that show this?

There are many examples in the book of how the past and present are not presented in chronological order. Do you think the book’s lack of clear signposting or straightforward chronology makes it harder for the reader to follow along? Or does it have a more powerful impact because of its unusual structure?

It has been noted that Not a River is the final book in the thematically-connected trilogy by Almada, including two other books, The Wind That Lays Waste and Brickmakers. If you’ve read Almada’s previous works, how have you noticed the connections between these three novels? If you haven’t read them, how does the fact that you are coming to the third part of a trilogy first impact your reading of it?

If you enjoyed this book, why not try

The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada

Brickmakers by Selva Almada

Dead Girls by Selva Almada