The River Singers

I’m going to start moving away from the sea and into other bodies of water but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to return to the oceans as I take this meander. I’m, appropriately, letting the waters guide me, going with the flow and seeing where I end up!

“It reminded me of Watership Down because it’s a poetic story about a family of animals in danger who are looking for safety”
– Charlie, Age 9


The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse is a compelling tale, and whilst it’s aimed at children, it warmed my heart as a 31 year old adult. It centres on a family of voles who live alongside the Great River and what I really enjoyed was the creation of the river as a character.

When our hero, Sylvan, first encounters the river he is exhilarated:

“She filled him with her vastness, her movement, her song. He felt the stirrings of hunger, the desire to dive, to twist, to flow with her.”

During this initial meeting between vole and water, Sylvan’s mother passes on words from her mother:

“Well, young ones, beyond this point lies Sinethis, the Great River. We are River Singers, Water Folk, children of Sinethis. We live by her ways. She takes our old and gives us young. She stirs our hunger, feeds us with grasses. She shelters us in her waters and burrows. She rises and dashes us. She sings with us a song as soft as thistles, hard as roots, deep as shadows, old as stones. We sing with her a song as quick as thinking, sweet as apples, brief as day. We are River Singers, and we are hers.”

What I love about this is that in a short paragraph we find water as life giving and life sustaining, water as death and water as eternal. These are themes that you can see at play elsewhere in the book and which weave together the wider river ecosystem.

There is some beautifully poetic prose in this novel and the interplay between Sylvan the voles and Sinethis the river is evocative:

“She is as old as stones and our song with her is brief as summer.”
– Sylan

“Flow with me. Be as I am. Be yielding but strong, swift and implacable. Flow with me. You will need to swim, to fight. But flow with me. This is my way.”
– Sinethis

“She sang in him [Sylvan], louder than she had ever been, her melodies twining deeply through his heart. She sang a song of savagery and peace, of raging torrents and burbling trickles, cataracts and calm. She sang of life, a strident tune, its notes strong, bright and gleaming. She sang of death, the notes muted, dissolving and mingling with the others, lost in the eternal whole.”

The river is truly, undoubtably, a character in her own right, an ever present semi-god.

“I loved the lyrical, spiritual relationship of the voles with the river, and somehow the very sad and dangerous parts of the voles’ lives was held in perfect balance with this, so that the book was accurate about life and death, but never gratuitously cruel or, on the other hand, unrealistically sentimental.”
– A. Booth, an amazon review

I think it’s useful to know that Moorhouse is an ecologist at Oxford University’s Zoology Department and completed his DPhil on water vole conservation ecology in 2003, as such this is a fairly good representation of this life of voles. Except of course it’s fiction and the voles talk. But you know what I mean!

“Once water voles were an everyday part of experiencing our countryside. Seeking them is a way of connecting with our past.”
– Tom Moorhouse

Water voles used to be a common sight along rivers in the UK, plopping into the water whilst fishermen sat on the banks. But things aren’t so good for them anymore. They are the fastest declining wild mammal in Britain and have disappeared from many parts of the country. Habitat loss is one reason for this but the introduction of the American Mink has had a huge impact on numbers as mink eat voles, something Sylvan and his siblings know only too well… Between 1989 and 1998, the population fell by almost 90 per cent. The populations which still remain are becoming increasingly disjointed and disconnected which leads to a loss of genetic variation.

But things might be improving for the voles. According to an article from summer 2017, numbers are on the up. And thankfully, for the species as a whole, they are not picky eaters and have been recorded eating 227 different types of plant in Britain. This means that they are less vulnerable to changes in flora but they do need to eat 80% of their body weight every day. I suspect a lot of live as a vole is about finding yummy food!

They have amazing, cute and expressive little faces and despite all the dangers around them, all the predators looking to eat them (we encounter a few in the book), they look relaxed and calm as they nibble away on the riverside vegetation. Just don’t expect this level of zen when you read the adventure of this vole family!