Books·First Look

Zalika Reid-Benta's new novel River Mumma is a magical realism take on the quarter-life crisis

The Toronto author of Frying Plantain is back with a new book! River Mumma comes out on Aug. 22, 2023. Read an excerpt now!

River Mumma comes out on Aug. 22, 2023. Read an excerpt now!

Image of author.
Zalika Reid-Benta is a Toronto author. (Rogene Reid)

Zalika Reid-Benta, the Canadian author of the acclaimed debut book Frying Plantain, is back with a new novel!

River Mumma is described as a "magical realist story" inspired by Jamaican folklore. The main character is a young Black woman having a quarter-life crisis while adventuring through the streets of Toronto.

The story follows Alicia, a young woman who still lives at home with her mom and has no career prospects. One evening, River Mumma, the Jamaican water deity, appears to inform Alicia that she has 24 hours to find her missing comb in the city.

Why River Mumma chose her is a mystery. Alicia barely remembers the legends she was told about the deity as a child. Still, Alicia embarks on her quest through the city which turns into a journey through time — to find herself, but also what the river carries.

Book cover.

Reid-Benta is a Toronto-based author who explores race, identity and culture through the lens of second-generation Caribbean Canadians in her work. The Columbia MFA graduate's debut novel Frying Plantain, a series of interconnected stories featuring a young Black female protagonist in a west end Toronto neighbourhood, was on the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.

CBC Books named Reid-Benta a writer to watch in 2019 and she served as jury chair for the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

"I had always wanted to write a fantasy novel that incorporated Jamaican folklore, that explored traditional folk medicine and spirituality," Reid-Benta told CBC Books in an email interview. "When I actually started writing River Mumma, I also realized I was writing a response to a lot of articles I had read at the time about what it was like to be a millennial in their twenties, because I didn't relate to anything that was written.

"So it all sort of came together where I was incorporating Jamaican folklore and spirituality into this novel about a millennial 26-year-old woman going through a quarter-life crisis and learning about her history, her ancestors, with patois and Toronto slang included in the dialogue, and some references to and conversations about cultural appropriation throughout the book."

River Mumma will be available on Aug. 22, 2023. 

Read an excerpt from River Mumma below.

Alicia walked straight.

There was no trail ahead of her, only leafless trees, so the snow was untouched. She felt as if she were gliding. Everything was strange. It was stranger that as spooked as she was, she had to keep going. Alicia passed between the trees. Now she was on the riverbank. Across from her, in the distance, high-rise apartment buildings towered behind the park.

In daylight the Humber River looked muddied, but tonight it glistened a deep blue. Large patches of snow floated downstream. This was where she was wanted. She stayed where she was and watched herself breathe out white puffs of air, imagining them as small misty clouds. She waited.

Psst! Psst!

Alicia looked to see if there was anyone around. No one.

Psst! Look 'pon di water!

It was a strange request. It didn't matter. This was what was drawing her, pulling her forward despite the nervousness that knotted her stomach.

It was a strange request. It didn't matter. This was what was drawing her, pulling her forward despite the nervousness that knotted her stomach. Alicia inched closer to the bank's edge. Once she was close enough to fall in, the blue of the water shimmered to a lizard-green. A boulder emerged in the middle of the river where there hadn't been one before. A figure sat atop the rock. It looked to be a beautiful woman but that was too ordinary a description. A shapely woman with blue-black skin and gorgeous loc'd hair. Coiled black strands that fell beneath her bare shoulders, covering her naked breasts. She wore nothing but beaded necklaces of varying lengths and colours. Some red. Some blue. Alicia spotted some orange. Both of her wrists glinted with golden bangles that nearly reached her elbows. Her face was a mystery. Neither young nor old, or maybe she was both at once, Alicia couldn't be sure. She couldn't be sure of anything because the most striking detail about this woman was that in place of her legs was a scaled green fishtail. Not quite a human.

Alicia reached into her coat pocket and took out her phone, then swiped up with a gloved finger. "Siri, am I still high?"

Ah yes, mi a vision fi true, but yuh eye nuh deceive yuh.

The woman — mermaid — hadn't opened her mouth, and yet an ethereal voice penetrated Alicia's head, its dreaminess making the words unfurl in her mind and take root like some kind of enchantment. It felt terribly pleasant, and that made Alicia nervous.

"I swear, this is, like, the weirdest night," she said, putting her phone back in her pocket.

The mermaid wasn't listening. Why mi haffi be so foofool fi want fi experience snow? She seemed to be talking to herself, though Alicia still heard the voice in her head. Mi live so long and mi never once feel so raasclaat cold!

Alicia laughed, surprising herself. The short burst of sound didn't even feel like it came from her own body. There was just something so normal, so human about swearing that it seemed at odds with the mermaid's mystique, that both entranced and unsettled her.

"How long have you been alive?" she asked, slightly emboldened.

The mermaid raised her chin, her eyes narrowing imperiously. She examined Alicia. Then her expression changed, almost becoming maternal.

Oh, mi roam dis earth since Wappy kill Phillip.

Alicia hadn't heard that saying in over a decade. Grandma Mabel used to say it all the time, and one day, when Alicia was around ten, she'd finally asked who Wappy was and why he'd killed Phillip. But instead of answering, Grandma Mabel simply cackled and continued braiding Alicia's hair. That was the last conversation they'd ever had.

"So you've been around a long time, then," said Alicia.

Yuh cyaah even begin fi understand time.

Somewhere beneath the voice's possession of Alicia's mind, recognition clicked into place.

Somewhere beneath the voice's possession of Alicia's mind, recognition clicked into place. She had a fuzzy memory from years ago of an older cousin, Winston, visiting from Jamaica around this time for the holidays. He told stories to all the younger cousins —fables and legends and jokes from back home. There was Anansi the Spider, and Big Bwoy for the older kids, and when they were feeling brave, Winston whispered about Annie Palmer, the White Witch of Rose Hall. But then there was also — Alicia took a quick step back from the edge of the bank. Her unease had morphed into an educated fear. The mermaid smiled, at once a threat and a comfort.

Yuh place me now, eh?

River Mumma by Zalika Reid-Benta. Published by Penguin Canada. Copyright © 2023. All rights reserved.


  • This post has been updated to reflect the correct name of photographer Rogene Reid.
    Feb 08, 2023 7:15 PM ET

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