A woman moves to a London suburb near the River Lea, without knowing quite why or for how long. Over a series of long, solitary walks she reminisces about the rivers she has encountered during her life, from the Rhine, her childhood river, to the Saint Lawrence, and a stream in Tel Aviv.
Little happens in River. Characters are held at a distance, dialogue is largely absent, and the 37 chapters could probably be read in any order with no loss of narrative sense. Esther Kinsky’s unnamed narrator observes and remembers, piling up beautiful, silt-like layers of description and memory until it becomes difficult to know which is which ... This is a book to relish for its precise descriptions of landscape and weather, for its interest in the detritus of other people’s lives that we routinely overlook, and for its international reach as well as its localised intensities, all wonderfully evoked in Iain Galbraith’s translation ... Above all, it is a reminder of what a privilege it is to see your home afresh, through an outsider’s eyes and words.
Although rooted in the author’s own long residence in London, River is a novel, not a documentary expedition. Episodes of satire and fantasy, such as a stint broadcasting for a Kafka-like version of the BBC World Service, push it towards eerie German gothic fiction rather than the London-bred 'psychogeography' of Iain Sinclair or Peter Ackroyd ... From her enigmatic photographs, or the half-buried historical traumas that haunt these 'landscapes of bereavement and implacable homelessness,' readers of the great W.G. Sebald—another self-exiled German—will suspect that his shade has strolled with Ms Kinsky by the Lea. Iain Galbraith, who has also translated Sebald, gives River, and all its 'lumber of cumbersome jetsam,' a special English poetry of grunge and grime.
Rivers, in the narrator’s account, can be both benign and scenic but also threatening and hostile ... and they denote both boundaries but also a strong pull to their destiny, the sea ... The story she tells of East London is a disconcerting one. She focuses on the local eccentrics, on the community of observant Jews (the area contains the largest concentration of Haredi Jews in Europe), itinerant Eastern Europeans, others packed into squalid and dangerous housing, travelers in their caravans ... At times the narration stretches to the deliberate absurd ... there is a definite Sebaldian feel to the narration, albeit without his detours into learned discourse ... Overall a strange and unsettling novel, if (much as it pains me to say it) a little too long, and with beautiful prose, thanks in no part to the three translators whose influence was brought to bear—the translator, the author and her husband.