"Danny Masters came home one afternoon at the beginning of August." So runs the opening line of English author Karen Powell's debut novel, "The River Within." At first glance it seems an uninspiring start, a matter-of-fact statement about the journey's end of a traveling man or prodigal son. However, we revise our initial impressions as a more disturbing picture emerges. Danny is dead and drifting in a river, one minute submerged, the next bobbing "jauntily as a buoy, his one remaining eye widened at the shock of release."
The fictional setting is Starome, a village on the Richmond estate, "tucked away beneath the lip of the North York Moors." The year is 1955. Alexander, Thomas, and his sister Lennie discover the body and recognize it as that of their childhood friend. All four went to school together, but a lot has changed since then.
Alexander, heir to Richmond Hall, left the area to attend Cambridge University. Fellow student Thomas has graduated into an angry young man, critical of his father and overbearing toward his sister. Lennie didn't get to move away and follow her dreams, and now hangs onto the hope that her boyfriend, Alexander, can strengthen his commitment and help her flee her life of drudgery and stifled opportunities.
Before his death, Danny worked as a carpenter, completed his military service, and returned to Starome to learn the crushing news that Lennie, his true love, was in a relationship with his old friend. How Danny has "fallen to pieces in the water" remains a mystery: Was it suicide, an accident, or murder? But not everyone in town has the time or the energy to worry about his fate.
Alexander's mother, Lady Venetia Richmond, is busy dealing with the death of her husband, Sir Angus, together with her brother-in-law's advances and her son's violent mood swings. And Lennie is coming undone by calamitous news she can't share and a tragic legacy she can't escape from.
Consistently elegant and absorbing, "The River Within" is a supremely accomplished first work. Powell expertly handles her fractured narrative, one that darts backward and forward in time and rotates three individual viewpoints, those of Venetia, Lennie and, in the run-up to his death, Danny. The characters harbor family secrets and personal trauma, or exhibit petty jealousies and intense manias.
Cracks in Venetia's stability begin as early as 1935 when she gives birth to an "enemy child" and finds motherhood "a kind of combat." Twenty years later, Lennie's sanity is threatened when loving becomes difficult, "a jangling up of her once-peaceful cells, the world off-kilter around her."
Throughout the book, Powell explores friendship, desire, mental health and class divides. She excels with her descriptions of untamed nature, in particular the river, which turns out to be both a vital life force and a watery grave. This is a novel whose shimmering surface conceals hidden depths.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The River Within
By: Karen Powell.
Publisher: Europa Editions, 272 pages, $24.