The River was one of those spontaneous purchases made on the back of an Amazon recommendation. Previously I knew nothing about the book and had never heard of the author, but the storyline sounded intriguing.
It's set in an idyllic English village that is haunted by a terrible tragedy in which two children drowned in the local river. This was in 1958.
Fast forward almost 40 years and Anna, a young pregnant woman from London, arrives in the village, hoping to start a new life for herself. She meets Isabel and Robert, the couple whose children died all those years ago, and finds them living a strange existence: emotionally separated (but not divorced), with Isabel residing in the house and Robert acting as if he is her head gardener.
Weird as it might sound, Isabel invites Anna to live with her permanently. But when the baby is born, Isabel starts acting oddly. She becomes especially protective of the newborn and before long Anna realises that Isabel's intentions may not be without malice...
The River portrays a world brimming with the unsaid in a village where people watch each other very carefully and know each other's business. There's a ripple of tension underpinning everything that happens, and Anna, too naive for her own good, seems to walk around with her eyes closed. There were so many times I wished I could shake her by the shoulders and tell her to get out!
The narrative style is original if a little hard work. It's told by a diverse cast of characters, some of whom are only introduced three-quarters of the way through the book, and jumps backwards and forwards in time. This means the reader must put the flashbacks in order and piece the story together bit by bit. For that reason The River is not a book to read in short spurts; you need to devote quite large chunks of reading time to it in order to do the mental gymnastics required.
Ultimately, I found it an
entertaining read, and I liked Wastvedt's languid almost effortless
writing style that captured the river, the village and its eclectic
inhabitants so well. But I found some of the characters annoying (Isabel was just over-the-top strange and Anna weak), the villagers unfathomable (why the closed shop? why did no one seek pyschiatric help for Isabel?) and the ending disappointing.
This book was chosen for discussion in Reading Matters Online Book Group (Session 12) in September 2007.