Songs for a River, McGahan’s third book, combines eloquent descriptions of nature, vivid artistic philosophies, and serene paintings of grazing buffalo in mountainous landscapes with a complicated romance that spans almost the entire novel. There is a Zen-like quality that carries over from page to page, inviting the reader to see art, nature, and relationships as more than just ordinary aspects of one’s life. But between the lovely portraits of wild North-West America, McGahan addresses the similarities between art, humanity, and the spirit of nature; although our pride as humans is to live and govern above the rest of the animal kingdom through reason and emotions, at our base nature we rely on the same instinctual tendencies as our hoofed and feathery counterparts. And even though we might consider ourselves beings of intellectual and artistic ability, it is difficult to push aside the lingering traces of animal ancestry along with the need to break free from societal restraints.
One great notion that McGahan illustrates throughout the book is that an artist is like an individual trapped by the ebb-and-flow of ordinary occurrences and how it is possible to break free of that cycle once the conventions are cast aside. The novel focuses on the lives of four people that become so heavily entwined with each other that an existence without any part is impossible. The forefront male, Miller, a somewhat lonely bird-watching enthusiast, falls for Constanza, a former art student that can’t seem to paint up to her own expectations. Also present in this basis for emotional turmoil is Seri, Constanza’s best friend, also an artist, who develops an unequal relationship with Miller. Nigel is Constanza’s art-instructor lover, a man who finds the calm and typical to be equivalent to death, or, from an artist’s perspective, “selling out.”
What really shines in Songs for a River are the eloquent descriptions of Washington State forests and communities, with beautiful watercolor illustrations and photographs to accompany them. Joseph McGahan and his wife Janet incorporate serene portraits of the local wildlife encountered in the novel using art techniques that the characters address. Photographs provided by Eugene Beckes function similarly in snapshots that fit with certain scenes in the novel. What makes these pictures stand out more so than a standard art featurette are the places they appear in the book: each image directly corresponds with an idea or statement within the chapter, enhancing the story through the imagery. This weaving of the written and visual make Songs for a River an effective lens that focuses on location, and overall increases the interaction the reader has with the story.
The interactions between these characters are what move the plot along, with the point of view switching between Miller and Constanza. Despite the unrequited lust between these two people, much of their characterization remains underdeveloped. The reader is aware of the conflicts each character must endure to keep the status quo, but there is nothing exceptionally unique to their journey or their motives for keeping mum until both have grown families of their own. Even Seri, who is viewed by the other characters as the most agreeable person of the group, is actually a weak-willed woman until the major crescendo of conflict that occurs almost toward the novel’s conclusion. Nigel’s change from a self-righteous artist to a more self-aware father-figure is reluctant but more apparent than those that McGahan forces the reader to spend thoughts with. As a result, it is difficult to feel anything, including sympathy, for these four people caught in emotional webbing.
Though dry and flavorless at times, Songs for a River is a culmination of human interactions, whether through the ebb and flow of relationships or how an individual perceives the natural world around them. The worlds of art and nature collide more so than any direct human-to-human relations, but perhaps that was McGahan’s ultimate goal. Coupled with the paintings and photographs, this novel reveals an intimate connection that can involve humans with the nature of the wilderness in ways that are unexpected, yet meaningful.