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★★★★☆ Book Review: Riverrun by Danton Remoto

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Capturing the intersection of a tumultuous adolescence and national tragedy through beautifully wrought language. 

The bildungsroman form has long been a staple of literature for good reason – there’s something inherently powerful about reliving someone else’s childhood alongside them, finding those all too familiar roads you’ve both walked down and the confusing feelings of first love and adolescence.

What makes Danton Remoto’s Riverrun more than just your usual coming-of-age novel however, is his keen use of language, willingness to experiment with both chapter length and the inclusion of recipes, and his ability to set the rites of growing up against the ominous backdrop of the Philippines’ chaotic military dictatorship without veering into melodrama.

Memoir-like, Riverrun is told from the perspective of Danilo ‘Danny’ Cruz, a boy who grows up in Marcos’ Philippines. From the very beginning, Riverrun opens with Danny becoming keenly aware of the beauty and power of words, a skill he displays throughout the remainder of his narration with astute, often witty observations of the world around him using poetic yet exact language to depict it. There is a great charm to his childhood innocence, the wonder of attending school and time spent listening to his parents regale him with songs and ghost stories. As a reader, I was left particularly tickled by the inclusion of recipes, such as his grandmother’s laing to kinunut, fiercely embracing the Filipino identity across food and art. Remoto’s wry sense of humour also contributes to the power of this novel, with an entire chapter dedicated to recounting the ongoings of a Miss Universe contest, and what became of the contestants.

When it comes down to the horrors of the Marcos regime, Remoto manages to make it somehow even bleaker than one ones reads about the actual event itself. Imelda Marcos is directly compared to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, and in a chapter dedicated to the tragedy of the Manila Film Center, there are visceral descriptions of men finding themselves trapped in fast-drying cement, and the ghosts of the deceased that continue to haunt the living for weeks after.

Against the backdrop of violence, Danny too grows up, and finds himself with a confusing sexual awakening, with an unrequited crush on his desk mate, and a failed attempt to get a girlfriend (rightfully, he gets friendzoned). His later realisation of his homosexuality is vivd as he describes extracts from Playboy, while experiencing strange feelings of lust watching boys participate in initiation rites. Later on, when Danny goes to a gay club while in London on scholarship, these feelings are distilled into something far purer, as he expresses his loneliness upon seeing the way couples on the dancefloor only have eyes for each other.

While it does seem to lose a bit of direction in its second half, with how fast it seems to speed through his teenage life and beyond, Riverrun remains a striking piece of writing that showcases Remoto’s mastery over the English language and his ability to eke out unresolved childhood traumas and memories, all while balancing it with humour and an unabashed pride for Filipino culture. Succinct and precise in writing, Riverrun is the ideal bildungsroman for the modern reader on a slow afternoon, each chapter a self-contained short story in and of themselves, and coming together to form a lush account of Filipino childhood.

Recommended for: Contemporary readers who enjoy flash fiction and creative approaches to writing, and want to know more about life for a citizen growing up under the Marcos regime. 

Riverrun is published by Penguin Random House SEA and available at all major bookstores. 

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