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  • Writer's pictureJami Moore

River Woman, River Demon: Badass Bruja Bitches (and More!)

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

If I had to whittle down Jennifer Givhan's book River Woman, River Demon into a word, it would be "strength." Strength of self, strength of family. Strength in our ancestors, in our faith, in our ability to move forward when our world is falling apart. Eva Santos Moon, the protagonist, is a woman for whom the world has just collapsed. A past filled with unresolved trauma. A close friend, murdered on her property. Her husband, the prime suspect, a black man in the hands of a racist system. Two children depending on her to hold everything together. What's a bruja to do?


Jennifer Givhan uses this as a springboard into a compelling, genre-defying thriller with strong roots in brujería and hoodoo as Eva searches for answers: both to the mystery of this murder, but also within herself. This book is a heartwork for Givhan; It's apparent from the outset that there are little (or large) pieces of the author in Eva, and perhaps that's why I loved the character so much, even in the midst of her greatest mistakes. Through luscious, vibrant storytelling, endearing characters, and a heavy dose of magick (with a k), River Woman, River Demon is a must-read that deserves every ounce of attention it's been getting.


The Writing Style


I'll be honest, I'm not usually a huge fan of first-person when it's told in the present tense. The stream-of-consciousness storytelling style annoyed me in The Hunger Games, and everywhere I've seen it since. That is, until I read this book. For whatever reason, seeing the entire story from Eva's perspective brings the tale to life in a way that was absolutely necessary for the recipe that makes this book delightful. I, as the reader, needed to see her every moment, for better and for worse, to understand the twists and turns and why the plot developed as it did. I needed to see her weakness, her insecurity, her doubts, and her fierce love for her family. Many books I've read lately take advantage of multiple points of view, and honestly, that would have only muddied the waters of a story that benefitted from its linear nature.


As for the prose itself? I think it's quite possible that Givhan's writing is the most magical part of the book. I love the kind of storytelling where there are a million little details in the descriptions. It's like each one is a musical note, and they all blend together to form a sparkling concerto of words and imagery dancing in my head. I could visualize every corner of the Moon family's altar, to their kitchen, to their meals (oh my god, the food!). After reading just a few chapters, I began to realize that my mental pictures were all saturated with bright colors. It was enchanting, to fall so deeply into a book that you literally begin to smell what's cooking on their stove. That magic carried me through forty-two concise chapters (which was fantastic because I always felt like I was making progress), and never once did I feel like the pace was dragging. I definitely learned a thing or two about storytelling from reading this work.


The Themes


Eva is a woman who doesn't know her own strength. She was born to a bruja (witch) who was versed in the ways of herbs and magick, of conjuring and rootwork and many concepts that quite honestly, I had to look up because I grew up Protestant, and the only experience I've ever had with traditions like brujería and hoodoo are "don't touch it or you'll go to Hell." (But then again, I had an uncle get unnaturally upset when I was fifteen because I wore two shades of nail polish at the same time, so...) She doesn't truly embrace it until she meets her husband, Jericho, who nurtures her and help her discover her inner power. As much as anything, this magick is a critical companion to Eva through the story.


This magick comes alive through Givhan's tale, and it is described with such depth and heart that it's almost its own character. Her family is tied with bonds of not only love, ancestry, and blood -- but magick, as well. It's a theme that ties the book together, and faith in the power that comes from belief in oneself and one's family. In the middle of the book, Eva's doubts overtake her, and she drops away from the true path in favor of what's easy and comfortable. She steps away from the magick and begins to consider it a curse instead of a boon. The second I read that she was packing up her altar, I instantly knew that she'd entirely forgotten who she was. Her strength in her magic was constantly indicative of her strength in herself and the right path, and it is that strength -- and a little help from the women who have loved her -- that saves her.


Speaking of women, the other theme has to do with my favorite f-word. No, not that one (though it is a close second.) But I'm talking about feminism. The bond that women share between one another is held up as sacred in this story, and I'm all about it. The distance Eva feels between herself and the spirit of her mother, who died giving birth to her. The sacred bond between Eva and her childhood friend, Karma. The bond she has to her sister, Alba, who raised her, her daughter, Ximena, her terse relationship with the female detective working on her husband's case, and even her bond with ancestor spirits she prays to, Pomba Gira and La Muerte. There's such a line of power drawn from woman to woman, as they hold her up and are ultimately there for her in her hour of need, whether it be through a well-placed arrow, a shoulder to cry on, or just a little bit of lightning between friends. When these women are at her back -- living and dead -- Eva can do anything.


The Culture


From the first moment to the last, the story is infused with the life force of the rich Afro-Latinx culture of its characters. I'm lucky (in so many ways) to have come from a small community that owes its existence to Latinx migrant workers, so not only am I at least somewhat familiar with Mexican culture, but I speak enough Spanish that I didn't really have to look up any of the Spanish words she dusted through her dialogue. It was all written with love and passion, and reading it was like snuggling down in a Pendleton wool blanket. Sometimes, when I read works from other cultures, I get the sense that, despite my enjoyment, this was not made for me, a white person. And that's fine! I don't need to be the target audience for everything ever made, and sometimes, I'm just grateful to be a part of it. But Givhan's writing screams "whoever you are, wherever you come from... welcome to my world." I had the distinct sense, through her loving explanations, that she wanted everyone who read her book to experience her culture and fall in love with it. And, dear reader, I did.


Beyond that, though, was the potency of her writing about Eva and Jericho's perspectives on the police and legal system in America for people of color. My porcelain ass was sitting here going "no, don't hide the evidence, Eva, just work with the police." As the characters continue to talk about their fear, their knowledge that Jericho wouldn't be treated fairly in the system, and Eva's desire to protect her husband, I realized that this was something I really couldn't properly understand. That alone makes this book vital to read for people who may not have ever known the abject fear that people of color go through when in the legal system. Knowing that they may find good help and defense -- but they probably won't. They may just have to help themselves. Holy shit, fam. We need to do so much better. No one should have to live with that fear.


My Wish


If I were to say one thing, and only one, that I really would like to have seen, it's a more complete epilogue. Eva makes some pretty bad choices during the course of the book. Choices that are understandable in the context, and choices that she eventually rectifies, but that will have long-lasting repercussions with her family. Life is messy. Love is messy. If anything, I felt as if the epilogue was a bit short, and it was tied up with a beautiful, neat little bow. Only... it really can't be neat after everything the Moon family has gone through. There's been so much death, so much trauma. Betrayal, even. Can anything really go back to normal after what's happened? Perhaps a better question would be, is there even a place for that in this kind of book, or is it better off with a clean resolution? I think, if I could wish for one extra scene, it would be something extra where Jericho speaks to Eva about the events of the middle of the book, and they at least confront what has happened, and resolve to move on together. Maybe that's just me.


The Conclusion


River Woman, River Demon is a brilliant, haunted thriller that reminds women everywhere of their own strength. By the end, I felt like a badass bruja bitch by sheer proximity to Eva, and it could be that this is just my personality now. We could all stand to remember how powerful we truly are, and that we all have people at our back -- both those with us and those that came before -- who are at our backs. We, in turn, are that for those around us, and everyone who comes after. She writes these eminently likable characters (except one, fuck that guy) who were so full and relatable that they filled my heart with joy just by being themselves. Through enchanting writing and a thrilling plot that moves at just the right pace, I loved it from beginning to end, with a brief stint in the middle where my heart ached for this character as if she were my best friend making really poor life choices. Give this a read, give a copy to your friends, give it a review on Goodreads.


After all, everyone could use a little more magick in their lives.



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This is my copy of River Woman, River Demon. It's a gorgeous, teal cover that implies a river, with some implications of the forms of owls, flowers and leaves. It's interspersed with a pop of bright red flowers every now and again. The book is leaned up against a stack of books that's been sitting on my coffee table for literal months.


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1 commento


Brandon Hayden
Brandon Hayden
29 ott 2022

Just want to say, I love your reviews. They are organized in such a fashion that is easy to follow and read. The book choices are also wonderful. In this one in particular I even learned something new. I had never heard the term bruja until this review. Now, I not only know what bruja means, the little exposure to another cculture in this review gives me something look forward to if I were to pick this book up for a read.

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