In the weeks that follow a tragic drowning, the river begins to give up its secrets. As the circumstances surrounding Danny's death emerge, other stories surface that threaten to disrupt everybody's plans and to destroy an entire way of life.
In well under 300 fast-turning pages, Powell manages something much larger and more complex: an autopsy of the entire caste system of post-World War II Britain ... Not only do these characters misunderstand each other’s motivations; they also don’t know enough about themselves ... Rivers have eddies, and so does the novel. As some sections move forward and backward in time, sometimes reversing direction, the main narrative thread tends to flow forward. Slowly, steadily, we come to understand the forces that shape the story, while the flashbacks help us understand the forces that shape its characters. None of these unfortunate souls escapes the pressures of their time, although the women fare worst of all.
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.
Despite an unfortunately dated representation of mental illness, Powell shows hard-nosed empathy in portraying individuals’ private demons in the context of social realities. Her novel about love, class, and secrecy in 1950s England reads as if it were written in the era the characters inhabit, her style and tone reminiscent of an earlier generation of reticent yet emotionally brutal writers like Shirley Hazzard and Graham Greene. A mesmerizing escape.