First things first: I loved The River, by Tricia Wastvedt. I don’t think it’s perfect, but it’s really good. The book is written in a style I’m not always crazy about, but it’s very effective in this case. Each chapter is from a different year, jumping back and forth between time periods as we are gradually introduced to important characters and the significant events in their lives.
And the first event we see is from 1958, in which two children, Catherine and Jack, brother and sister, float in a sinking rowboat along the River of the book’s title. It is the tragic drowning of these children, from the small village of Cameldip in Devon, England, that still underlies the life of that village in 1986, when a young unmarried woman named Anna comes to stay and give birth to her baby.
Unknowingly, the couple with whom she stays, Isabel and Robert, are the parents of the drowned children, and she only gradually learns about the terrible incident from other people in the village. Certainly Isabel, who still lives in the main house, and Robert, who now dwells in a shack he built in the yard, never speak about the children themselves. Yet their simultaneous estrangement and subtle refusal ever to separate have somehow held the entire village hostage to the tragedy.
The pub owner, Josef, now almost forty, is gradually revealed as the Child Who Survived, who had fallen and not managed to get into the boat with the other kids. Sarah, who was the young assistant of the village doctor in 1958, found her life intertwined with that of the children’s parents, and has never managed to leave and fulfill her own plans to become a doctor. And all the other villagers join with Isabel in staunchly Not Mentioning or ever fully dealing with what happened.
It gradually becomes clear that there is more going on with Isabel than anyone dreamed, and it seems to escalate once Anna’s baby boy is born. Isabel has retained no pictures of her children; all she has is a photograph of the River, taken from a nearby hill on the fateful afternoon by Josef’s father, where the stern of the little boat is just visible as it disappears behind a stand of trees, on its way to its destiny.
I think the title, The River, is meant as a kind of metaphor, about how all these different characters and their different lives just happened to flow together toward that one awful moment – and then how they all continued to flow through subsequent events and consequences. What happened in 1958 inexorably flowed on to become the life of the village as Anna found it in 1986. This same metaphor is supported by the fact that so many of the villagers live in houses that were built around – and in! – trees. That was Robert’s specialty, to build houses that encompassed trees so that they still flourished, and house-and-tree became one living entity. Everything builds upon and grows out of something that came before.
While I was enthusiastic all the way through, the only thing I didn’t like about The River was how it ended; it just didn’t seem fair to certain characters. On the other hand, real life doesn’t always wrap up and fully resolve itself satisfactorily, so it was probably the most true to life ending there could have been. Tricia Wastvedt made me care about the characters and long to know what happened to them. It was her effectiveness at this that made me so disquieted when I finally found out.