It is 1958 and we are in Devon in a small village situated by a river; in a sinking boat on the river two children struggle to keep their heads above the water. Their parents, Robert and Isabel MacKinnon, are at home in their riverside property, unaware of the tragedy happening to their much-loved children. When the two children are found drowned, Robert and Isabel blame themselves and each other and find they are no longer able to live together as man and wife. However, bound together as they are in remorse and anger, they cannot entirely let go of each other and, understandably, neither of them can find it possible to really move forward from the tragic event. As time passes, it becomes clear that this terrible tragedy has not just affected Isabel and Robert, but has become woven into the lives of many of the inhabitants of the village. (No spoilers, we learn all of this in the first few pages of the book).
Some time later, Anna, a young, pregnant woman comes to the village looking for a retreat from London and an escape from an unsatisfactory love affair. As a temporary measure until she can find a house of her own, Anna moves into Isabel's home and, initially, the two women become close. However, once Anna's baby is born, the dynamics between Isabel and Anna alter considerably and, as Anna begins to uncover incidents from Isabel's past, she starts to feel very uneasy and unsettled. When Anna becomes attracted to Josef, the ruggedly handsome owner of the local inn, who was involved in the tragic drowning, a series of events follow which leaves Anna in a very precarious position.
Moving backwards and forwards in time from the 1950s to the 1980s, and with a large cast of interesting and beautifully depicted characters, this novel which has many different strands and a real sense of underlying tension running throughout the course of the story, makes for very absorbing reading. Tricia Wastvedt writes lyrically and evocatively of landscape and situation - both in a personal sense and of the wider community, and her fluent and graceful narrative drew me deeply into her engrossing and unsettling story.
on 8 May 2005
Wracked with grief and guilt, Robert and Isabel McKinnon blame themselves and each other for the death of their two young children Catherine and Jack in a boating accident. The catastrophe happened in the summer of 1958 while the children were playing in a leaky boat on a river that passes through the tranquil English village of Cameldip in the sleepy heart of Devon.
For thirty years the tragedy has rippled outwards like pools in the river, gradually becoming part of the essential fabric of the town. Robert and Isabel continue to live next to each other maintaining an uneasy alliance fraught with sorrow, recrimination, and heartache. "He was responsible, his stupidity his neglect. Not only him - I was equally to blame." Neither have had the courage to let go and perhaps move on from the town and the river where misfortune irrevocably changed their lives.
In 1987, Anna, a young, free-spirited girl wants to leave London so she sticks a pin into the map of Devon and hits upon Cameldip. Seeking refuge for herself and her unborn baby, she arrives and immediately falls in love with the idyllic little township. But in doing so doing she unwittingly seals her fate as she enters the muddy waters of the lives of those who live there.
Taking up Isabel's offer for a place to stay, Anna sleeps in a tree house by Isabel's cottage, a tree house that was originally built by Robert when he first came to the village. As Anna begins to relax into a comfortable and contented life, she phones her boyfriend - who does not know that he is soon to a father - asking if he will drive down from London to stay.
After the child is born, Isabel gradually begins to take them Anna and baby Mathew under her wing. At first everything seems to be going well, but progressively Isabel becomes distracted and starts to confuse past and present and to treat Matthew as her own. She starts to call him Jack, takes him for walks, and lavishes attention on him without Anna's permission. Isabel becomes incensed and even more protective of Mathew, when Anna befriends Josef, a local man, who Isabel partly blames for the accident.
Isabel is a vividly drawn character whose traumas have been papered over, both by her and by the community around her. She's a profoundly disturbed character who treats her anger as a relic, "a fragment that is broken off, displaced but still perfect, which she would unwrap from time to time." Her eventual breakdown, which forms the central theme of the book, is well described, and as gripping as any thriller.
The community is probably equally to blame for closing around her and not reporting her mental state and deterioration. Over the years Robert tried to help, "but he said his lines for so long they were meaningless; what they made were a thread going back to the past." Isabel responds by saying "You wont get away from me you know."
Form and content merge in this tale of many voices, which, like the river, meanders through the years and through the wreckage and refuse of the characters' lives. Scraps of the past are spliced with the present and scenes light up like magnesium flashes on front of one's eyes. Author, Tricia Wastvedt ingeniously incorporates a series of flashbacks, which introduce characters that come to the village and so enter the story.
There's Edward, the kindly local doctor; Constance, the tall grey-haired lady who runs everything in the village; Sarah, a religiously conflicted nurse who comes to look after Edward; and Xavier and Adelie, a French couple who settle in the village quite by chance. The characters are well drawn and totally three-dimensional, with beautifully sketched detail from their daily lives.
The river itself is an important aspect of the novel and swirls its way through the story, sometimes low, broad, slowly moving, offering coolness in the summer heat, but other times moving faster, higher, dragging branches from trees, offering danger in its sheer force. Highly metaphorical, the river follows a serpentine path reflecting the characters' lives; under the surface of their idyllic lives lurk the dangers of the past where events collect like the mud at the bottom of the river.
Many of the characters have been abandoned to cope with their memories. For Robert the beginning and end have been spliced together, "and the years of memory between have fallen away useless." Sarah also remarks that memories are "deceitful treacherous things, a ragbag of delusions and desires."
The River is an impressive, lyrical, and atmospheric novel that is all about memory and how memories weave and slide through time, unwilling to stay where they belong. Like a literary puzzle, the reader must make sense of these memories by placing them in order and into their proper sequence. Only then can we fully grasp the ripple of effects that have resulted from the aftermath of this devastating tragedy. Mike Leonard May 05.
on 12 January 2011
There were a lot of things I liked about this book, I liked the country/village setting, the writing & the character descriptions (eventhough there were probably too many of them).
I think it was the character of Isabel that bothered me the most, the description of her hurt and anger and grief were very well told but for somebody who had obviously been through so much, I couldn't stand her. Maybe I wasn't meant to like her but I found that her treatment of other people was extremely unfair and harsh and had I liked & sympathised with her a bit more, I think I would have enjoyed the book more.
I thought that the relationship between Isabel and Anna was quite far-fetched. Anna lets this 'stranger' dominate and control her. She gives Isabel way too much power in the rearing of her son, even after she learns of the tragedy of the downings. Alarm bells?? She is a grown woman & a new mother and yet she tells Isabel her every move and rings her to tell here where she is and if she will be late.
Also the whole village seems to be in denial about the obvious emotional and psychological issues of Isabel and don't seem to bat an eyelid at her obvious unhealthy relationship with Anna.
I think this book had really good potential to be truly dark and sinister and shocking, but in the end I put it down feeling a bit disappointed and let down.
on 1 October 2005
With all due respect to my fellow/reader reviewers, I urge anyone thinking of buying this book on the strength of its various book prize nominations, NOT to read the very detailed review which appears on this page. You need to come to this story utterly unknowing and utterly unaware of the various layers of this incredible story and its many and varied characters and their relationships and, in particular, how they all connect. Uncovering this as the story unfolds is an INTRINSIC part of this book's unbelievable ability to draw you in till you just can't put it down.
Suffice it to say, this book is a brilliant first novel and I absolutely "lived it" as I read it.
The story revolves around the drowning of 2 young children in a small riverside village, some 30 years earlier and the impact this has on the lives of their parents and friends and, indeed the entire village, the shockwaves spreading outwards like a those of a pebble cast into the water.Its portrayal of English rural life is faultless, and Wastvedt's ability to capture the almost incestuous nature of the co-dependent relationships in such a tight-knit community is stunning.
This would make a truly wonderful film, its various twists and turns keeping you on the edge of your seat as they do even as you read it! Towards the end, I was actually skipping pages to uncover the truth behind the many different strands of this story! Truly remarkable and thoroughly enjoyable, can't wait for her next novel.
This rather confusing story spans 45 years and centres around a village tragedy.
Two young children were playing in a boat on the river when disaster struck and both children drowned.
Understandably, their death rocks the village and, sadly, tears apart their parents' marriage.
Their mother never really recovers and her mental instability has devastating effects towards the end of the book.
When a young pregnant girl comes to the village and takes accomodation with the bereaved mother,she becomes unknowingly emroiled in the undertow caused by these deaths nearly 30 years earlier.
I am going to upset the three previous reviewers, who obviously rated this book highly. I found the large cast and the switching of decades, confusing, and never really got involved in the book.
To add to that, the ending was frustrating. Not a book I'd recommend.
on 12 December 2012
Think of all those wonderful connotations of Devon with rivers meandering through tranquil countryside. Carnaldip, like Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford seems to be sleepy and peaceful setting surrounded by natural beauty and charm.
Superficial and under the surface, like the strong undercurrent in the river, there is constant danger lurking. It is destructive and violent. Deceptive.
Now consider the impact this has on the lives of the locals-characters we come to know intimately-all of them hoarding secrets, pain and suffering. Anna has escaped from London, ended her relationship, pregnant. She walks blindly and naively into a minefield with predictably devastating consequences.
The River is Wastvedt's first novel published in 2004. Like the river, the story races and meanders though 40 years from 1946-1987 and hovers like the demon from hell in 1958 and 1987, two significant years. Just like the tide that ebbs and flows to and fro, the novel parallels this-an interesting and unusual structure-a bit confusing at first but once you get into the rhythm you will see the author's purpose, covering new ground by returning to the same time zone and giving you a different perspective.
The opening is dramatic with the tragic drowning of Jack and Catherine. Isabel, their mother has never fully recovered and the novel chronicles how, three decades on, she loses touch with reality and plunges into a world of insanity.
Starling and Gatty seem sexually precocious girls, both disillusioned, full of hatred. Their lives seem empty and uneventful. Josef represents the Gabriel Oak of Hardy's world, solid and reliable but sexually immature, a man who wears his heart on his sleeve.
Everyone gets hurt, everyone loses but there are survivors at a cost. Worth a read.
on 3 September 2008
I can't believe how differently I viewed this book to the other reviewers. I found the plot and the characters unbelievable, the ending completely unsatisfying and the setting also completely unrealistic. I gave it two stars as I did finish it and found it quite an easy read but there were so many "but why...."s and "but surely no-one would...." that any enjoyment was frustrated.
on 24 January 2011
This book was such a surprise. Recommended by a friend, I was astonished by it. And astonished that I so enjoyed what I thought would be dark, brooding and depressing. Yes, it has a dark story line. But it is not a dark story - or not depressing at least. How not? I think through the characters, who are are all so wonderfully and fully drawn, and the community the author has created with them is such a whole and caring community. That might sound sugary and soppy: Cameldip is anything but that! Conveyed through fabulous writing, it is a complex and beautiful place, and the novel is as beautiful as the mosaic floor of the aviary within in it: a collection of individual pieces that come together to create an astonishing whole.
on 6 September 2005
This book is one of the best books I've read this year. The plot and characters are vividly depicted and the atmosphere of the close-knit community is almost tangible. A poignant ending that leaves you feeling like you've been through it all. This is a first novel, what an acheivement!
on 2 January 2011
I found this book recently and I loved reading it! The writing is absolutely beautiful, and the story is compelling though at times disturbing. The characters are carefully drawn. Buy this book, read it and decide for yourself.
I for one am waiting to read more from this author, lets hope there is another book soon.