It is the summer of 1955. Alexander, Tom and his sister Lennie, discover the body of their childhood friend Danny Masters in the river that runs through Starome, a village on the Richmond estate in North Yorkshire. His death is a mystery. Did he jump, or was it just an accident?
Lady Venetia Richmond has no time to dwell on the death. Newly widowed, she is busy trying to keep the estate together, while struggling with death duties and crippling taxation. Alexander, her son and sole heir to Richmond Hall, is of little help. Just when she most needs him, he grows elusive, his behavior becoming increasingly erratic.
Lennie Fairweather, ‘child of nature’ and daughter of the late Sir Angus’s private secretary, has other things on her mind too. In love with Alexander, she longs to escape life with her over-protective father and domineering brother. Alexander is unpredictable though, hard to pin down. Can she be sure of his true feelings towards her?
In the weeks that follow the tragic drowning, the river begins to give up its secrets. As the truth about Danny’s death emerges, other stories come to the surface that threaten to destroy everyone’s plans for future and, ultimately, their very way of life.
As someone who primarily reads novels for character and motivation, it is very rare for me to get drawn into a book where the main lure is the quality of the prose. It happens on occasion – Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is one example, Ray Robinson’s The Mating Habits of Stags another.
This isn’t to say that I don’t like or appreciate well-written or lyrical fiction. Just that there usually there has to be a compelling plot, motivation or character to go alongside it. And it also isn’t to say that The River Within doesn’t have an interesting plot, motivation or characters. Just that, for me, it was – unusually – the gorgeous prose that pulled me into the book and dragged me under, much like the rushing waters of the Stride does to the unfortunate Danny Masters. Take this, for example, from the opening paragraph:
“Danny Masters came home one afternoon at the beginning of August. Something stirred beneath the surface of the water, at a point where the river at last quietened and opened out into a wide pool, bottle-green beneath the canopy of trees. His movement was slow at first, so that a passer-by might look twice, thinking it the shadow of a bird or a swaying branch above. A billowing next, deep, growing, blurred at the edges, and then up he bobbed as jauntily as a buoy, his one remaining eye widened at the shock of release.”
Similar passages can be found throughout the novel – sentences and paragraphs that you just want to dive into thanks to all their lushly evocative detail. One of the pull quotes for the novel – by the author Preti Taneja – said that the prose “was as alive as Millais’ painting of Ophelia, singing as the river and reeds claim her” and, for once, I don’t feel that’s an exaggeration. There really is something of a painting in this book – fine precise brushstrokes that come together to make a compelling portrait of a family and a community on the precipice of change.
The Ophelia comparison is well-founded because The River Within loosely takes Hamlet as its source material. If you know the play, you’ll quickly realise the roles into which Venetia Richmond, her son Alexander, and the dreamy Lennie Fairweather have been cast. Follow on from that, and it won’t take much to work out that The River Within is, at its heart, a five-act tragedy.
What makes The River Within so evocative, however, is the way in which Karen Powell has put meat onto the structural bones of Shakespeare’s original. Whilst characters and events can be loosely mapped onto Hamlet, the novel explores the added complications of class and societal hierarchies with its careful examination of a country house estate struggling to weather the changed world that has emerged after the Second World War. There are also tender and compassionate examinations of mental health, grief, love, longing, and desire, as Powell turns her piercing gaze upon the inhabitants of Starome to expose the inner workings of their souls.
To say any more about The River Within would, I feel, be superfluous – and would also risk spoiling the reading of this beautifully evocative book. Needless to say, if you’re looking for a moving and meditative read to see in 2021, The River Within should definitely be on your radar.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to Daniela Petracco at Europa Editions for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
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