The River Within
By Karen Powell
Europa Editions: Dec. 1, 2020
259 pages, $24.00
Set in the village of Starome in North Yorkshire mostly during the mid-1950s, The River Within examines the fraught relationships among characters from different levels of the British class system.
Like any good mystery, it grabs you from the start, when Alexander Richmond and his friends, siblings Lennie (Helena) and Thomas Fairweather, discover a body in the river that runs through the Richmond estate. It is Danny Masters, a friend from their childhood and Lennie’s classmate.
When Danny is pulled from the river, the question is whether his death was an accident, a suicide, or murder. As we get to know these characters and several more, all three possibilities remain plausible.
Powell tells the story through the alternating perspectives of Lennie, Danny, and Alexander’s mother Venetia, and the plot moves back and forth in time from the 1930s to 1956.
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The charismatic Angus Richmond and his dutiful younger brother James are the scions of a fading family, whose Richmond Hall is expansive but slowly crumbling. Venetia comes from a middle-class family but adapts well to life among the landed gentry. Lennie and Thomas’s father, Peter, is the private secretary to Angus, and the Fairweathers live in a cottage on the estate. While to an outsider life on the Richmond estate appears to be proceeding smoothly as Britain recovers from the war, the estate turns out to be a hothouse of secrets and mysteries suitable to the setting of the North Yorkshire moors that we know well from classic Gothic novels.
Alexander, the sole Richmond heir, has grown from an indulged child into an alternately charming and aloof young man. Lennie is pure-hearted and devoted to her father, older brother, and the land. Her childhood friend is now the object of her infatuation, but Alexander’s inconsistent behavior leaves Lennie feeling either hopeful or confused. Danny, similarly good-hearted, works in the village sawmill and has long admired Lennie from afar. It’s a love triangle that mirrors the Stride, the rapids and whirlpool section of the local river that figures heavily in the plot.
The River Within is an absorbing novel that probes the always rich subjects of love, loss, jealousy, reputation, family dysfunction, and class. Karen Powell has made a strong debut that has me looking forward to her next book.