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What They Say:
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 behaviour 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 the future and, ultimately, their very way of life.
What I Say
“People talked about love as though it was a blissful state, to Lennie it seemed something taut and perilous’.
I have read lots of books this year, some because they were all over the internet, others because I was asked if I would like to, but sometimes, you discover a real treasure all by yourself.
The River Within is just that book.
It is a story of restraint and understated emotions, of the power of things that are not said, and the tremendous impact on many lives that not speaking up can have. The natural world is an important and ever present theme, with the river quietly and ominously winding its way through the pages of the novel, as we wait for it to again assert its silent authority over everyone.
As soon as Alexander, Tom and Lennie find the body of their lifelong friend Danny Masters, who has drowned in the river, their whole world starts to shift and fall away beneath them. Without realising it, their lives have changed and Danny’s death will be the catalyst for a chain of devastating events.
Lady Venetia Hamilton who has been widowed, after her husband Angus has died, has been left in charge of the family estate – something she finds uncomfortable to deal with. As well as trying to run things the way her husband would have wanted, she is trying to look after their son Alexander – a petulant and entitled young man who is pulling further away from his mother. He seems troubled and unfeeling towards her, and has so much anger inside him that as a reader we know that it is only a matter of time before he erupts.
Tom and Lennie (short for Helena) are the children of Fairweather, who is the private secretary for the Hamilton family and right from the start their lives are inextricably linked with those of the Hamiltons. The Fairweather children’s mother passed away, and Lennie has taken over her role, having to do everything for her father and brother. Lennie has also fallen hopelessly in love with Alexander – although he treats her more as a plaything to pick up and put down whilst refusing to allow anyone else to get close to her.
At the heart of the novel is Danny Masters and his untimely death. A good, hardworking and solid soul, who loved Lennie so completely, but realises he could never compete with the love that Lennie felt for Alexander. How and why did he die, and what part if any did Lennie, Tom and Alexander play in it?
As the novel starts to unfold, we move backwards and forwards in time, learning how the relationships between the children and adults develop and the reality of their lives in a world where appearances and societal expectations are everything.
It is heartbreaking for us to see how every single ambition and dream Lennie has is crushed. She wants to pursue a career that will enable her to move away and make something of herself, but her father refuses to allow her, as he sees her place is with him, looking after him and Tom.
Similarly, Lady Hamilton we discover, was attracted to Angus’ brother James, but married Angus when he decided that she was the woman for him. Although she has undeniably enjoyed a privileged lifestyle, she is not happy, and has spent her married life uncomfortably navigating what she is expected to do as Lady of the Manor. I really felt that Karen wrote her character so well, restrained and impeccably behaved to the world outside, whilst inside she is actually a passionate and intelligent woman who has been forced to subsume everything for the sake of appearances.
What works so well in this novel is Karen’s measured and understated narrative. The characters all seem to be dealing with their own private pain, but can’t articulate what they are feeling which means that it will manifest itself in other more extreme ways. Alexander’s rage eventually explodes, Tom’s refusal to deal with things means his life takes an unexpected turn and Lady Hamilton we learn has her own secrets she has been struggling to live with.
However, it is Lennie whose life starts to unravel and slips away from her as the novel moves towards its emotional and heart wrenching climax. Karen writes with such tenderness and understanding, that it is impossible not to become involved with Lennie’s pain and understand the choices she eventually makes.
I loved this novel because for me it dealt with many themes such as love, the role of women, class and mental illness in a way that never felt forced or didactic. The characters each hold their own, and as a reader I really understood their motivations and actions, which meant that it was impossible not to be captivated by the story and its outcome.
The River Within found its way onto my reading pile purely by chance, and I am so glad that it did. It is a quietly assured, beautifully written and thought provoking novel, that deserves to be widely read and appreciated.
I loved it.
Thank you so much to Daniela Petracco at Europa Editions UK for my gifted copy.