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Wales Book of the Year shortlist review: Where the River Takes Us by Lesley Parr

30 Jun 2024 7 minute read
Where the River Takes Us by Lesley Parr is published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Eric Ngalle Charles

Where the River Takes Us by Lesley Parr does precisely what the title says, so please hold tight and come with me as we drop pebbles into the river, chasing each ripple into a world of adventures.

Before we delve into this book, I must issue a warning. Do not read this book in public places, including libraries, trains, and parks. You might wet yourself with laughter more than once ; the man walking his chihuahua might mistake you for someone who’s just escaped from a laughing asylum.

This book is hilarious, a treasure trove of tiny adventures. It starts with the rumour mill of a blurry picture of a cat’s tail, taken by a man from Craigwern, and the chase is on.

We gear ourselves to become spies and lookouts, kitted up and off, trailing the riverbed in pursuit of the beast of Blaengarw.

No sooner are we trailing a big cat via its tail, that  we are landed in a tricky family dilemma: steal diesel to pay the mortgage, starve, or risk homelessness. Suddenly, we find ourselves in Jason’s headspace, in bed, looking at the ceiling and wondering what tomorrow will bring.


Fiction can ease the burden but not diminish the pain of a great tragedy. Losing a parent is one thing, but losing both parents is catastrophic. Lesley navigates these traumatic memories and their trigger with the delicacy of a skilled hunter.

Through her skilful writing, Jason becomes that suitcase; we pile our clothes into it, and even when it is complete, we squeeze some more and wonder why it explodes. It reminded me of the poem by JM Nixon, “A heavy suitcase is crammed inside me and packed full and sealed tight. It weighs me down. I drag it along wherever I go.’’

Consumed by grief, Jason wants to escape. And what better way than to embark on a quest with friends? Eventually, he explodes; my favourite character, Catrin, is on the receiving end.

While grieving, we need support and boundaries. From the way Jason dismisses potential counselling, Lesley is gradually building us up, and we are glued to the pages as they flip. We know something terrible is bound to happen—edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Childhood poverty, idle hands, bullies, and the local town crier or in the case of Where the River Takes Us, Mrs Fletcher, who can stretch her neck as a crane and see through shopping bags, “Thos spaghetti hoops-half-p cheaper in Tesco, they are.’’ Lesly writes with such gentility, reminding us of everyday shenanigans and situations we have experienced, but it enhances the pleasure. She sieves through childhood memories and creates these series of Déjà vu moments.

Big cat

Within the spine of The Herald newspaper, we are informed that there’s a reward for the big cat roaming the countryside.

Going to visit friends and plotting ideas is guided by the motive of munching like the hungry caterpillar through their biscuit tin.

We are drinking and sploshing simultaneously, giggling at the exchanges between Tam and Jinx; the cost-of-living crisis means his mother has gone exotic, buying pineapple juice. This strange taste is described as a crime against taste buds. In this childhood naivety and brilliance, we can, for a flitting moment, be glad that taste buds replace humanity, given the nightmare unfolding in the Middle East.

Lesley teases and knows how to keep the reader hooked. As soon as I started reading Where the River Takes Us, I never wanted to put it down. I wonder what the polite Catrin called the nosy Mrs Fletcher… this storyline keeps giving.

The accents and voices all have that air of familiarity. After reading Lesleys book, I met with my friend at our favourite drinking spot in Grange Town. On my way there, I heard the characters in Lesley’s book talking. Delinquency and the bread of heaven.

Children should be allowed to be children. No labels. Getting drunk at age nine from drinking dregs and sleeping in undercoats are memories of a life lived. “Bread of heaven, feed me till I want some more.’’ This book has all the echoes of our communities today. Lesley tells us it was situated in 1974, and she did not have to do that. Not a lot has changed. Families are struggling; we seem to be moving from one crisis into the next. We cannot catch a break.

Tam goes to church, so he cannot laugh at Jesus. This cracked me up.


Through humour, the writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o navigates the dark times in Kenyan history. One of Lesley’s tools in this book is humour, which she uses with a devastating effect. As we laugh, so does Dean and Garry’s appearance throw spanners into the works. “Going to Blaengarw to get rich.’’

“Bandages on toast tonight, then.’’

This book keeps delivering, written through the prism of child protagonists. Woodpeckers, Rabbits, and Roadrunners are not real. They are cartoon characters. The government should read this book. Instead of forcing our children into military conscription, we should create safe spaces for them to be adventurous.

Nemo Resido. I was vying for the children to come across the cat. Was it a Puma, Lynx, or Panther? But first, they had to cross a field with a bull in heat.

My highlight is the church scene. I am old, but I don’t think I would sleep in a church even if it guaranteed me an extra pound from Universal Credit. The pause after the chase, the crisp and ham sandwich has never tasted so good.

I laughed like I was plagued with madness reading this book. After racing up the hill, avoiding the deluge, the children enter a derelict house and close the door, only to realise they are still wet. Synchronising, they look up only to realise the house hasn’t got a roof.

Bait dangling

Siarad Cymraeg versus dim Siarad Cymraeg, and memory. As much as this book is about childhood memories, adventures, loss, language, what we take and what we live behind, boundaries, love, friendships, the undercurrent of economic doom, and cost of living crises.

One thing is sure. Lesley is a writer who keeps giving; she is excellent at the art of conversation and dialogue, and like a seasoned fisherwoman, she knows how to dangle bait.

As you laugh and feast your senses with her wicked sense of humour, remember that grief is like a sleeping giant, a docile volcano that one day, with the right circumstances, will finally surface and explode, with devastating consequences. Jason burst on page 169. And we feel his pain.

In the following narrative, I understood the various comments and compartmentalisation of grief. We all need Jason’s friendship in Catrin. However, I did not see it coming when Catrin confessed that she stole the camera from her father.

I give this book a rating of ten out of ten. It is recommended for children, teachers, and emerging writers who sometimes struggle with where stories or ideas for stories come from.

As you enjoy Where the River Takes Us, I am off to Cwmbran on the trail of a rhinoceros viper.

Where the River Takes Us by Lesley Parr is published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books. It is available from all good bookshops.

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