The River Within

Written by Karen Powell
Review by Clarissa Harwood

There’s something rotten in North Yorkshire in 1955, and it’s not just the bloated corpse of Danny Masters, which floats to the surface of the river near the village where he grew up. The river also flows through the Richmond estate, but the heir to the estate, Alexander, isn’t interested in becoming one of the dying breed of English landowners. What he is interested in, aside from ancient Greek, isn’t clear. His remoteness puzzles his mother, Venetia, and his sweetheart, Lennie (Helena).

The novel is focalized through Danny, Venetia, and Lennie in alternating chapters. Danny’s perspective is narrated entirely through flashbacks, offering clues about the mystery of his death. Lennie’s and Venetia’s perspectives present a female-centered version of the Hamlet story, suggesting that women’s lives were just as cramped and circumscribed in the early 20th century as they were in Shakespeare’s time.

Among all the Hamlet retellings both in print and on-screen, this one’s strength lies in the depth of Venetia’s character and her believable struggles, from her ambivalent feelings towards her son since his babyhood to her complex romantic relationships with the rival brothers who vie for her love. She is as rich and fully realized as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, with a polished, calm surface but an anxious inner life. However, Lennie is a rather two-dimensional character (rather like Shakespeare’s Ophelia), and I couldn’t help wishing Powell had taken more creative license with her. But the restraint of this novel is part of its charm, as is its strong sense of place.