River Boy

River Boy

4.2 5
by Tim Bowler

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She didn't know how fast the current was moving her. It could take many more hours yet, perhaps more hours than she had the strength for. But she must not stop. She must keep going. She must try to catch the river boy, even though she was frightened at the thought of what he was.

Jess's beloved grandfather has just had a serious heart attack, but heSee more details below


She didn't know how fast the current was moving her. It could take many more hours yet, perhaps more hours than she had the strength for. But she must not stop. She must keep going. She must try to catch the river boy, even though she was frightened at the thought of what he was.

Jess's beloved grandfather has just had a serious heart attack, but he insists that the family travel as planned to his boyhood home on the river so that he can finish his painting, River Boy. As Jess helps her ailing grandpa with his work, she becomes entranced by the scene he is painting. Then she becomes aware of a strange presence in the river -- a boy who asks for her help and issues a challenge that will stretch her swimming talents to their very limit. Jess knows that Grandpa and the river boy are connected, but how? Can she take up the river boy's challenge before it's too late for Grandpa?
Tim Bowler's gripping narrative flows like a river itself -- gentle and calm at times, turbulent and deep at others, always fluid, always alive. Readers will be swept along by the magic of the river and the mysterious river boy -- and changed forever by Jess's unforgettable journey.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
It is the last wish of 15-year-old Jess's grandfather to return to his childhood home by the river. "Bowler's 1998 Carnegie Medal winner succeeds in conveying the strong bond between Jess and her grandfather; as the novel unfolds, the heroine realizes they have more in common than she'd ever imagined," said PW. Ages 12-up. (Jan.)n Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Jess is 15 years old, the same age as her grandfather was when he lost both parents in a fire and moved away from his childhood home by the river. Now growing frail, his last wish is to return to the river and finish his last painting, entitled River Boy. Grandpa calls Jess his muse; she counts on him to cheer her on at her swim meets. As they commence their vacation, the unfinished painting troubles Jess, more so as she begins to sense a mysterious presence on the river. Then she begins to see the river boy himself, waiting for her, asking for her assistance in a special mission. The narrative builds too slowly, and some of the passages seem out of character or overblown (e.g., a few times Jess's parents mention that they feel they're neglecting her; Jess tells the river boy, "Stay a mystery a little longer. I can't take any more truth right now"). However, Bowler's (The Midget) 1998 Carnegie Medal winner succeeds in conveying the strong bond between Jess and her grandfather; as the novel unfolds, she realizes they have more in common than she'd ever imagined. Ages 12-up. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Children's Literature
When fifteen-year-old Jess's Grandpa has a heart attack, she and her parents agree to take him to his childhood home. His health continues to deteriorate as he pushes to finish a painting he entitled River Boy. Meanwhile, avid swimmer Jess has explored the nearby river and has seen an elusive and enigmatic boy who invites her to swim to the sea. These seemingly disparate happenings come together in an ethereal way. The rapport between Jess and Grandpa is key to her ability to sense the boyhood spirit of her grandfather, and is well-crafted. Not so the tension between Jess's father and grandfather which is never explained. Bowler has poignantly written about death and its impact on the dying as well as those continuing on. This introspective and quiet story dealing with relationships and lost opportunities will appeal to a mature reader. 2000, Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, Ages 10 to 14, $16.00. Reviewer: Sharon Salluzzo
VOYA - Voya Reviews
Winner of the United Kingdom's Carnegie Medal, this fascinating novel is the subtle tale of teenaged Jess, who comes to terms with the illness and eventual death of her beloved grandfather. It is also the tale of her grandfather, an irascible painter who claims Jess as his muse, and of his acceptance of his own mortality. Shortly after her grandfather experiences a near-fatal heart attack, Jess's family takes him on a vacation to the remote river where he grew up. There Grandfather tries to finish a final painting called River Boy, which seems to have no boy in it. Meanwhile Jess, an avid swimmer, takes to the river, tracing it to its source, where she meets a strange youth in swim trunks. He talks enigmatically of the river as a living thing that ends as it reaches the sea. Eventually Jess follows the boy down the length of the river, swimming nearly forty miles. The reader is left to decide whether the boy, who with the river is an obvious metaphor for life, is real or fantasy. This beautifully-written book places the reader in a difficult period in anyone's life, that of being first faced with the death of a loved one. At the same time, it feels like a written painting, a descriptive, emotive work that will mean something different to each reader. This mystical story is a true work of literature that is recommended for all libraries. VOYA CODES: 5Q 4P M J S (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2000, Simon & Schuster, Ages 12 to 18, 160p, $16. Reviewer: Beth Karpas
To quote KLIATT's July 2000 review of the hardcover edition: Jess, age 15, loves her artist grandfather, although he is cantankerous and stubborn. When he suffers a heart attack, he insists on traveling as planned with Jess and her parents back to the area he grew up in, to a place by the river so that he can finish his painting called "River Boy." The painting mystifies the family, who see the river but no boy depicted. Then Jess, who loves to swim, starts to catch glimpses of a real boy in the river. As her grandfather weakens, and becomes frustrated by his inability to finish this painting that means so much to him, the river boy suggests to Jess that she help him complete it—and that she accompany him on a swim the length of the river, from its source to the sea. Jess takes the river boy up on both ideas, and the marathon swim helps her come to terms with her grandfather's death. She comes to understand that the river boy is somehow Grandpa's spirit, and she is happy to have helped her grandfather fulfill his dreams. This well-written British novel effectively uses the river as a symbol of the course of life, and movingly portrays the love between granddaughter and grandfather. It won England's Carnegie Medal in 1998. I wish the cover were more appealing though; the river boy looks too young to appeal to YAs, unfortunately. Category: Paperback Fiction. KLIATT Codes: JS—Recommended for junior and senior high school students. 1997, Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse, 234p., $4.99. Ages 13 to 18. Reviewer: Paula Rohrlick; KLIATT SOURCE: KLIATT, March 2002 (Vol. 36, No. 2)
School Library Journal
Gr 6-9-Jess is a competitive swimmer and her grandfather is a professional artist. Kindred spirits, they share an admiration and sensitivity for one another's talents. After a heart attack, his patriarchal power over the family becomes ever more imposing. He insists that Jess's parents take him from the hospital and journey to his boyhood home, and they are no match for his determined and willful temperament. Coupled with the reality of his dwindling health is an underlying ripple of tension between Grandpa and Dad. At the isolated cottage, Jess is drawn to the river that Grandpa wants so passionately to capture on canvas. He wrestles with his art as ardently as he wrestles for his life. While he paints, Jess explores the river, always with the sense that someone else is nearby. She discovers the "river boy" and learns of his goal: to swim the river from "source to ocean." As Grandpa's time runs down, this haunting river boy reaches toward Jess, pushing her to stretch herself and swim with him. River Boy is about the embodiment of hope, the circle of life, and an artist's spiritual quest. Its premise is creative and deeply tender. In the end, Dad has some resolution to the vague conflict between him and his father. Readers never learn what that was and, consequently, are left feeling as though a piece of the story is missing. Bowler's lyrical metaphors and fluid writing style are disrupted by this void.-Alison Follos, North Country School, Lake Placid, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Jess's grandfather, a noted painter, has suffered a heart attack. Grandpa insists his family carry on with plans to take him to his remote childhood home, obsessed as he is with finishing a painting titled "River Boy" in which there seems to be no "boy." Arriving at their vacation rental on the river, Jess begins to feel the presence of, and soon sees, a mysterious boy she calls the River Boy. Says the enigmatic young man, "If your grandpa died fulfilled, would you bear his loss better?" He then advises Jess to help finish the painting by being Grandpa's hands. The River Boy himself needs Jess's help. He wants to swim the river from source to sea and, fearful of swimming alone, wants Jess to swim with him. As the River Boy materializes from mere presence to actual boy, Grandfather fades. Then, the painting finished, he dies. The journey to the sea completed, the River Boy also vanishes at the moment of Grandpa's death. While the writing is quietly poetic, the theme universal, and the metaphor of the river that flows from source to sea apt (if not entirely fresh), the story does not compel. Thoughtful readers will easily predict that the elusive boy is Grandpa and that the death will be timed to coincide with the boy reaching the sea. Readers who do not, though, may tire of the repetitious family dithering over an old man who is tyrannical, emotionally remote, and self-absorbed. Sadly, his decline makes for reading more painful than engrossing. (1998 Carnegie Medal) (Fiction. 11-13)

From the Publisher
Susan Cooper,Newbery Medal Winner, The Grey King A river is a natural metaphor for life and death, and Tim Bowler uses it to wonderful effect in this lovely, simple story. River Boy is written in quiet, non-poetic prose — but it's a poem, as well as a very moving novel.

School Library Journal (starred review) This psychological thriller is immediately engaging...[and] suspenseful and fast-paced throughout.

The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Cormier fans...are likely to find this just their cup of astringent tea.

The Horn Book Magazine There is no question that the tightly scripted plot with its steadily building tension will keep readers spellbound to the end.

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Product Details

Margaret K. McElderry Books
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Age Range:
12 Years

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Chapter One

It didn't start with the river boy. It started, as so many things started, with Grandpa, and with swimming. It was only later, when she came to think things over, that she realized that in a strange way the river boy had been part of her all along, like the figment of a dream.

And the dream was her life.

Half-past nine in the morning and the pool was crowded already. That was the downside to summer holidays, especially hot ones like this, but she knew she shouldn't grumble: she'd been here since six-thirty, together with the usual hard-core group of serious swimmers, and she'd managed a leisurely four miles without interruption.

But she did grumble; the mere sight of all these people flopping in like lemmings made her want to shout with frustration. She wasn't ready to stop yet, not by a long shot. She had energy left and she planned to use it.

She stuck to her lane, doggedly plowing length after length, trying to ignore the splash of other swimmers. Sometimes she'd found that if she just forced herself to keep on swimming up and down her lane without stopping or swerving, the other users of the pool seemed by some collective telepathy to accept that space as hers, and leave it to her. But that wouldn't work today: they seemed to be jumping in by the score. Another quarter of an hour and it would be unbearable.

She locked into her stroke and drove herself on, her breath beating its practiced rhythm in time with the strokes, as even as the chime of a clock. In for a gulp of oxygen, her mouth twisted upward to snap its life from the air, then facedown again and the long exhalation to a slow, steady count, bubbles teasing her lips like tiny fish.

She loved this rhythm; she needed it. It kept her thoughts on track when they started to wander. Sometimes, when things were going well and she was feeling secure in herself and had something pleasant to think about, she was happy to let them wander; but if she was tiring or feeling vulnerable or worrying about Grandpa again, she focused on that rhythm and it settled her, sometimes even when she wasn't swimming.

But she was always swimming. She needed to swim. To be deprived of swimming would be like a perverse kind of drowning. She loved the sensation of power and speed, the feeling of glistening in a bed of foam, even the strange isolation of mind in this watery cocoon. Distance swimming was as much about will as about technique; and she knew she was strong in both. All she needed now, to set that will alight, was a big swimming challenge; something to test herself against. Something she could one day be proud of.

She heard Grandpa's voice calling her.

"Keep going, Jess!"

She glanced up at him as she flashed by, and smiled to herself. She knew what "keep going" meant. Dear old Grandpa: he'd only been here twenty minutes and he was bored already. He ought to know by now that he could never fool her, of all people. His concentration span had always been short, except when he was painting, and his temper shorter still. Yet for some reason he always liked to come and watch her swimming.

She reached the far end of the pool, turned and kicked off the wall, and looked for Grandpa again. He'd wandered around to the shallow end and was standing there, watching some children. He was ready to go; but maybe she could squeeze in a couple more lengths to finish off. She plunged down toward him, feeling for some reason slightly apprehensive. The children in the shallow end blocked her lane but they broke apart as she approached, and she slipped in between them, wondering whether she should stop.

Grandpa called out again.

"Everything's fine, Jess. Keep going."

She kicked off the wall and headed back down the pool, suddenly desperately uneasy. Something was wrong but she couldn't figure out what it was. His words rang in her head: everything's fine, everything's fine. And yet there was something in the very contrariness of Grandpa that told her he was trying to conceal something. He was such a stubborn, prickly old man, he would always say everything was fine.

Especially when it wasn't.

She broke out of her stroke and stopped, treading water, and searched for Grandpa. There he was, still standing at the shallow end, watching the children. He looked all right; no different from before. Just bored. Perhaps she was imagining all this. He saw her and raised a hand to wave.

Then, to her horror, he clutched it over his heart and crashed into the pool.

The hospital managed to keep him three days. He was meant to have stayed much longer but, being Grandpa, as soon as he'd decided he was feeling better, he phoned for a taxi and, to the consternation of doctors, nurses, and a protesting taxi driver who was convinced his cab was about to turn into a hearse, discharged himself. As he informed the exasperated doctor, the family was going on vacation on August 20th and, as this was the 19th, he needed to get home to pack.

So he was home again.

She knew it was a mistake. Much as she'd been yearning to see him back, she knew the moment he arrived that this time even his independent spirit had misled him. He'd turned up at the door looking like a skeleton, and they'd put him straight to bed. He seemed barely well enough to move, let alone go on vacation.

The next morning, at Grandpa's insistence, they started packing, though only after Dad had forced him to agree to let them call out Dr. Phelps. Jess liked Dr. Phelps but went up to her room when she heard him at the door. She knew what the outcome would be: once Grandpa had set his mind on something, that was that, and if he'd decided he was going on vacation, nothing anyone could say or do would change his plans. So Dr. Phelps, pleasant man though he was, would get short shrift.

She sat down at the desk and stared at the swimming medals on the shelf with her birthday cards propped up among them, the big, jokey one from Grandpa most prominent of all. But neither swimming medals or being fifteen seemed relevant right now.

She frowned and let her gaze wander out of the window into the street, already clogged with cars and buses and taxis struggling toward the city center. The omens for a good vacation seemed remote indeed.

Some time later she heard a tap at the door.

"Come in, Mom," she said, not looking around.

"Do you recognize all our knocks?"

Jess glanced up at her and tried to smile.

"Suppose so. Has Dr. Phelps gone?"


"And was Grandpa horrible to him?"

"Not horrible. Just...you know..."


Mom laughed.

"Yes. Grandpa-rish."

"So we're still going on vacation?"


Jess sighed.

"He shouldn't be home. And we shouldn't be going on vacation. He's not well enough."

"I know. But let's not think the worst. He's such a stubborn character, he'll probably pull through out of sheer bloody-mindedness just to prove us all wrong."

Jess scowled down at the desk.

"I still think he should be in the hospital."

"Well, you won't change him," said Mom. "You know what he's like. Dad and I aren't happy about it either. If he has another turn where we're going, it might not be easy to get him to a hospital. It's a very isolated place, apparently. But he's set on going, so let's just hope it does him some good."

"He needs rest. Lots of rest."

"Try telling him that. Anyway, are you ready?"


"Good." Mom leaned forward suddenly. "Jess, give your dad plenty of support. I know you will anyway, but remember, if it's hard for you, it's worse for him. OK? See you downstairs."

Mom kissed her and left the room, and Jess thought over what she had said. She was right, of course: it must be worse for Dad, as Grandpa's son, and an only son at that, even though the two of them seemed constantly at loggerheads. But that was hardly surprising: they were such different men, one fiercely independent, fiercely driven; the other mild and unambitious.

She glanced out of the window and saw Dad in the street, fitting the roof luggage box to the car, and smiled to herself. That was about the extent of Dad's ambition: do-it-yourself projects that never worked. He'd always liked making things. Working with his hands seemed to take some of the tension out of him after a day's teaching, though whenever he produced anything, the unfortunate object never quite looked as if it had come into the world with a willing heart.

The roof luggage box was no exception; and the fact that everyone in the street now called it "the coffin" did nothing to make her feel more comfortable.

He walked back into the house, and a moment later she heard his voice as he climbed the stairs.

"Jess? You packed?"

She picked up her suitcase, hurried forward, and opened the door of her room to find him standing there.

"I'll take the case," he said.

"It's OK."

"No, here." He reached out to take it, then suddenly, as though on an impulse, put his arm around her instead and held her to him. She looked up at him, expecting him to speak, but he didn't; he just held her, his eyes staring over her head; then -- just as suddenly -- he let her go.

"First day for ages you haven't been swimming," he said.

"Didn't feel like it somehow."

"I know."

He took the suitcase and started down the stairs. She followed, trying to see the expression on his face but unable to catch it.

"How long will it take us to get there?" she asked.

"Hard to say, not having been there before. There'll probably be lots of tourists on the roads. That could slow us down. And it's a very remote place. Miles from anywhere and difficult to get to, judging from the map." He glanced at his watch. "Can't see us getting there before dark."

He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and left the suitcase with the others. Mom appeared at the kitchen door.

"Is the coffin on the car?" she said.

Dad frowned.

"Yes. But listen, can we stop calling it that?"

"Pop won't mind," she said. "He was the one who called it that in the first place."

Dad looked at her.

"It wasn't him I was thinking of."

Mom's eyes softened at once.

"We'll call it the roof luggage box," she said quietly. "Jess, can you go and see if Pop's all right?"

Grandpa was in the sitting room in his favorite chair, his head thrown to one side, and she thought at first he was sleeping. Then she caught a sparkle in the eyes.

"How are you, Grandpa?" she said.

"Still dodging the undertaker. Is the coffin ready?"

She chuckled.

"Dad's just fixed it on the car. But how are you really?"

"Fine." He glanced at her, then gave a wink. "Long as you're around."

She looked away, trying not to show how much it hurt her to see him as frail as this. The Grandpa she'd always known had been a man of vigor, energy, passion, despite his age. It seemed somehow unjust to see him any other way. She tried to take her mind away from the thoughts she feared most.

"Do you think you'll remember the place?" she said.

"'Course I will. I was born there."

"But you were only fifteen when you left."

"That's right. Same age as you."

"And you've never been back since. So it'll be different."

He sniffed.

"I'll remember it. You wouldn't forget this place, would you?"

She looked down.

What was it about Grandpa that was so reassuring yet so unsettling? He seemed utterly unconcerned about his condition. He had always been fearless, or at least appeared so, yet somewhere within himself he must have pondered the dark possible outcome of all this: the thing that preyed on her mind and no doubt on Mom's and Dad's minds too; the thing no one mentioned.

She saw her father at the door.

"All right, Dad?" he said. "Jess looking after you?"

She wished he wouldn't keep raising his voice every time he spoke to Grandpa. He'd only started doing it since yesterday and it made it seem as though the heart attack had not only weakened Grandpa but rendered him deaf as well. Sooner or later there was bound to be a caustic response. But Grandpa merely raised an eyebrow this time.

"Jess is looking after me fine."

"Well, let's get you in the car, then."

He let them help him to his feet, then quickly waved them aside and reached for his stick. Jess stood back and watched his painful progress out of the sitting room, Dad hovering anxiously close by in case he fell. Mom was waiting in the hall.

"All right, Pop?"

"Yes, yes, for God's sake. How can I be anything else with you bunch fussing over me all the time?"

Mom chuckled and stood aside to let them pass; then she caught Jess by the arm. "Come with me," she said.

Jess followed her through to the study, and there on the table, propped against the wall, was an unframed painting, unmistakably one of Grandpa's yet unlike anything he had done before; and clearly nowhere near finished.

"Do you know anything about this?" said Mom.

Jess shook her head. "I've never seen it before. I didn't know he was working on anything."

Mom looked hard at her. "He did this last night."

"You mean -- ?"

"When he got back from the hospital. We put him to bed -- remember? -- and he must have waited till we'd all turned in, then got out again and come downstairs and fetched his brushes and what have you, and worked through the night. And now he tells me he wants to take the thing on location to finish it. I don't know what drives that man, I really don't."

Jess stared at the picture.

It was so different from his usual work. There was a river, which dominated the scene, not a river she recognized and perhaps not even a real one at all, just a fantasy river. The picture was strange and amorphous, so different from his other paintings, yet it was eerily beautiful. The banks were a subtle hint of green that the eye barely took in, being somehow drawn into the pale waters and away toward a hidden sea. There were no animals, no birds, no people; and it felt right that way. There seemed no place for living things in this remote vision. Yet for some reason she found herself thinking of the coming of autumn, after a long, rich summer.

Mom spoke again. "It's got a name."

There was something in her voice -- something too causal, too detached -- that betrayed her excitement. And Jess knew why. Grandpa never gave his pictures names. He just painted them and left others to make sense of them, if they could. Mom turned the picture over and pointed to the words Grandpa had scrawled there. Jess read them aloud. "River Boy."

The words seemed to carry a strange resonance, as though they were somehow important to her, yet why

that should be so she could not tell. And there was a further mystery.

She looked around at Mom. "There's no boy."

"Exactly. Strange, isn't it -- I mean, for him to be so specific. Still, he hasn't finished it yet, so maybe he's going to put the boy in later. I made the mistake of asking him about it."

"Mom! You should have known better."

"I know, but I couldn't resist it. It's such an unusual picture, especially having a name. I suppose you can guess the response."

Jess didn't need to guess. She knew what Grandpa's response would have been.

"He told you it's not up to the artist to explain a painting, because each picture has its own life and its own language, just like a poem, and we either understand it or we don't. And he said painting's hard enough work as it is without having to waste time telling every idiot -- "

"Ignoramus, he said."

"Every ignoramus what the thing means. And if artists had to explain their pictures to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who came along, they'd never get any work done. And he said -- "

Mom interrupted her, laughing. "Something like that. Anyway, I was hoping you might know something about this painting, seeing as you seem to be a sort of muse for him."


"Someone who inspires an artist."

She knew what the word meant. Grandpa had often used it when she went to watch him paint, but generally it was just to say that the muse wasn't being kind to him today, or that he'd have to be nice to the muse today as he had a difficult bit to work on, or something like that. He'd never suggested the muse had anything to do with her. Indeed, she'd always thought he meant some kind of goddess, not a human being at all. And it was hard to imagine anyone, even a goddess, having any influence over someone as willful as Grandpa.

"He doesn't need me to inspire him," she said. "He's been painting all his life."

Mom ran her finger around the edge of the painting, as though debating whether to answer; then she spoke, in a quiet, thoughtful voice. "But he's only really found himself in his painting since you were born. His earlier pictures all lacked something. They had plenty of technical skill, but the magic wasn't there." She paused. "But after you were born, it's like something started to motivate him, and it's gone on motivating him ever since."

"But he's never called me a muse or anything like that."

"He wouldn't. And he's never said anything to Dad or me either. He probably doesn't even see it that way himself, and if anyone asked him about it, he'd say they're talking garbage. But there's something -- I don't know what it is -- but something he gets from you, something really important to him. Dad and I both feel it." She stroked Jess on the cheek. "I don't know why I'm telling you this, but keep it to yourself and don't let it make you vain -- not that you would. Just treat it as a sign of his love."

Jess looked back at the painting and said nothing.

"So you don't know anything about the river boy?" said Mom.


"Not to worry. Well, let's get going. Bring the picture out to the car, can you? Not that I can see him having the energy to finish it on vacation, whatever he thinks. You know how worked up he gets when he's painting."

Jess picked it up. "I'll be along in a moment."

"Well, don't hang around. We've got a hell of a journey in front of us."


She waited until Mom had gone, then stared down at the picture again; and the words slid into her mind once more.

River Boy.

It was strange, but no doubt, as Mom said, Grandpa would put the boy in later. If he was strong enough to paint. That was the big worry. He might never lift a brush again, though she doubted that. He was so obsessive about a painting once he had started it, and this one -- this one she sensed was important to him. And, for some reason, also to her.

She didn't know why. She only knew that the more she looked at it, the more the presence of the absent boy seemed to grow, until finally it overwhelmed everything, the banks and the sky and even the river itself, pulling her into the picture and onward, irresistibly, toward the sea.

Copyright © 1997 by Tim Bowler

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