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REVIEW: The River Within by Karen Powell

“The river would flow on though, long after the earth had closed in around the bones of the past, and the land would become what it always had been: a palimpsest waiting for a new story to be told, which was always the old story, of love and loss and joy and grief.”

If this book hasn't been on your radar, I urge you to add it to your list because I absolutely loved it. Small-town tensions, class differences, and love triangles bubble to boiling point in 1950s rural Yorkshire. If you're a fan of Shakespeare's Hamlet, this one is for you...

In August of 1955, the drowned body of teenage Danny Masters is discovered by 3 of his peers: Alexander, the heir to a local country estate, and siblings Lennie and Tom, who's father works for the country estate.

In the weeks that follow the tragic drowning, the river begins to uncover secrets, threatening their entire way of life...

This novel is mysterious and tense, and flowing right through the centre of it is a river. Claiming lives and spilling secrets, the river flows beneath the surface demanding to be heard. The book itself is written like a river, meandering into different perspectives, pushing into the past and flooding the present. The story is told from the perspective of three characters: Teenager Lennie, who, despite being the object of Danny's affection, is in love with rich and entitled Alexander; the recently widowed Lady Venetia, Alexander's mother, who is struggling to manage the country estate; and Danny himself, who haunts the narrative. Through these narrators, generation and class begin to merge in tragic ways. The past catches up on the present, colliding personal problems with post-war British realities.

“The water was black and angry and ugly, and she would not seek it out by choice but you could not get rid of it. Energy like that would only find its way to the surface again.”

As this book is a reimagined version of Hamlet, Powell's choice to centre the two women (her version of Ophelia and Gertrude) subverts the tale that we are usually presented with, and highlights the conditions that these women must navigate and manage: the men they must consider, the societal positions they occupy. The inclusion of Danny's voice is particularly interesting as he is probably the only pure character in the book, and his working-class roots make him an interesting contrast to that of Lady Venetia, or even Lennie who is preoccupied by the idea of the escape Alexander could offer her. Danny's voice is a constant reminder of his death and how this links all of the characters.

“The universe was made up of two types of people, Lennie thought: those who wanted to smash things to pieces and those who wanted to keep the world just as it was. Implacable, opposed forces, like the rocky banks of the Stride, the twisting iron-dark water trying to find a path between.”

Powell's writing has been likened by many to that of classics such as Thomas Hardy and I have to agree, the writing is beautiful, the way it evokes the setting of Yorkshire, its poetic nature, and the way she handles her characters. I really think this is a future classic. The above quote really conceptualises what is at the heart of the novel; tensions between those ready for change and those that rely on the status quo. The river twists its way between the two, trying to find a path, tumbling the characters into the future, towards the 1960s, even if they aren't ready to move forwards.

“Danny saw how blinkered he had been by his passion. He’d been so sure that only he could comprehend her quiet splendour, that it had never occurred to him to search the horizon for rivals.”

This book is for all fans of literary fiction, historical fiction, or a good mystery story. The river will lure you in with it's glistening water, then its currents will drag you under and move you with the tale until it is finished.

Some other quotes from the book:

  • “How changeable it was, this coppery water.”

  • “His name on her tongue: Alexander. Possessing him with her voice."

  • “He was aware of her all the time, could feel her presence even when she wasn’t in direct sight, a kind of heat spreading over his skin.”

  • “Energy could not be created or destroyed but it could shift its shape right in front of your eyes. It was sly like that.”

Thanks for reading!

Kate x

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