“The River Leith” is a perfectly lovely book. The title is a play on the Greek myth of the River Lethe, the “river of forgetfulness”, the river that takes away the memories of their lifetimes from the dead as they move on. And it’s an appropriate name. Leith was a promising young boxer, on his way to the New York State Boxing Championship, until an illegal blow from his opponent sent him, instead, to the ICU with brain damage. His critical faculties remained intact, but his memory not so much. He has completely lost the last three years of his life. It’s called Retrograde Amnesia and robbed him of the knowledge of his father’s death, his friends, his career aspirations, and the man he loved more than life. In fact, when asked during his intake exam, he informed his doctors that he’s 100% heterosexual.
A questionable decision by his doctors and friends comes back to haunt both Leith and his lover, Zach. The wisdom of the day was that, since Leith has lost all memory of Zach, they would wait to tell him that the two were a committed couple until he might be able to handle it better. When he finally does “meet” Zach (Zach had been by his side during the worst of it, but not in the early stages of recovery), he doesn’t remember him at all. For Leith, he’s meeting someone for the first time. He can’t quite understand why he constantly wants to touch Zach, why he checks out his butt every time he bends over, why Zach’s presence brings him the first and only peace and joy he’s known since his brain was damaged.
Ms. Blake spends a lot of the book walking the reader through the recovery process. Perhaps “recovery” is not a good word, as he will never regain his memory. However, he needs to learn how to deal with other people, how to deal with the great gaps in his history and knowledge, and how to control the violence that rears its ugly head as Leith deals with the frustration of “knowing he should know” things and people he cannot remember. Most important, Zach and Leith have to fall in love again – from scratch.
Zach is, of course, devastated that his lover doesn’t even recognize him. Yet there is something growing between the two men – as though the brain has forgotten Leith’s lover, but not his love. All he knows is that Zach and only Zach can put a smile on his face, bring joy to his heart, and he misses him terribly when he’s not around. He’s about to leave the hospital and he’ll have to deal with the real world, the people, places and events he’s forgotten, and plot out a new future for himself – or better, one for himself and Zach.
Ms. Blake does a wonderful job plumbing the psychology of victims of brain damage, thinking about the big picture, the known and unknowable universe, and the very nature of love. It’s wonderful to read, to experience vicariously, and her writing is more than up to the task. She has Leith’s hospital psychiatrist wax philosophical and metaphorical, which gives Ms. Blake the opportunity to show how beautifully creative her thinking and writing are. In offering Zach a different way of looking as his missing years:
“Not lost, but found. In wonder.”
These words are one of the best descriptions of love I’ve read in a very long time:
“…the crazy feeling that overwhelmed him – the thing that was like happiness and comfort and want and need and God-so-good all in one – made them both feel whole again.
I originally intended to give “The River Leith” only four stars. Yes, I loved it, but it didn’t initially strike me as a very important or exceptional addition to the M/M genre, just a good book. When I went back to the two lines I quoted above, I changed my rating to five stars for the engaging characters, the realistic and charming dialogue, the unique concept, the depth of Ms. Blake’s understanding of the brain, but most of all, for the sheer beauty of her writing. She “gets” love, and “gets” it both deeply and movingly. Which leaves “The River Leith” not just a good book, but a beautiful one.
My highest recommendation.
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