Tiffany Quay Tyson’s debut novel, Three Rivers, opens in the year 1990 at a Christian music festival near Memphis. Instead of a Facebook DM or a text message, twenty-something Melody Mahaffey receives a crumpled note from her mother, Geneva, with whom she shares a relationship that could generously be described as rocky. “Come home,” she reads. “I must leave. Your father is dying. Your brother is not able.”
Whether out of familial obligation to her ailing father and damaged brother, or to escape the torpor of her current situation—backup singer and keyboard player in a terrible Christian pop group called Shout with Joy—Melody impulsively quits the band and thumbs a ride to Memphis, where she will catch a south-bound train to White Forest, Mississippi, and her family’s faded estate, Three Rivers.
Her sense of unease about this long-overdue homecoming is heightened by her conversation with the strange couple who pick her up on their way into downtown Memphis. Talking with Bernice and George Walter gives her both the discomfiting feeling of family history repeating itself as well as the sense that her decision to do as her mother has asked and go home may be more momentous than she realizes. “No one has to do anything in this world, sister,” George Walter tells her. “You make your choices and you live with them. Don’t forget that. Everything is a choice, sister.”
Three Rivers is told through the eyes of three central characters: Melody, Geneva, and Obi, a single father who has spent years living along the Mississippi River with Liam, his young son.
Obi and Liam lead a peaceful, nomadic life: “Liam was at home by the river and Obi didn’t fret about whether he might wake up and believe Obi had abandoned him as his mother had. They were a team. Together they had become so used to the constant rush of the river flowing past that the noise of the water was the same as silence. Together they made the land their home.” But Obi’s lifestyle is called into question when a violent accident forces him to flee the riverbank and take refuge at Three Rivers, a safe haven secured by his mother, Pisa. Of Chickasaw descent, Pisa is a “spiritual guide and healer for white women” and longtime advisor to Melody’s mother, Geneva.
For her own part, Geneva would do far better to take Pisa’s wise advice and return home. But Geneva, proud and headstrong, is on a much different mission and has no problem rationalizing her irresponsible behavior. “These were the judgments against her: mad as a loon, unbelievably selfish, a bad mother, and a terrible wife. Fact is, Geneva’s life was one long string of tragedy and yet she went right on living, getting stronger and more powerful in spite of it.” But when a punishing storm floods the Mississippi Delta, she is forced to a point of reckoning that she doesn’t foresee—even if Pisa does.
Three Rivers explores the unknowable relationship between the choices life demands and the permission it doesn’t ask for. While certain decisions are clearly under the control of the novel’s main characters, its central event is an act of God—and its far-reaching repercussions in all of their lives.
Kathryn Justice Leache is a freelance writer who lives with her family in her hometown of Memphis. Her life among books has included work as a librarian and stints as a bookseller at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis.