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River by Esther Kinsky

River is a novel with very little narrative. A woman comes to live in London. She was born by the Rhine, but while staying in Hackney she explores the River Lea. This novel is about location, where poverty and migration are characteristic features and feature the changing patterns of the riverbanks, the paths, the marshes, unspecified marginal areas. Location is the emphasis of this novel.

I read River for two reasons. First it was recommended by a writer friend, who always makes interesting recommendations. And second, it is about the River Lea that I knew well for 25 years as it bordered my home territory, provided places to walk and a place t mingle with the mixed population. There is a peculiar pleasure in knowing this location, the shops (EGG store), Springfield Park, Hackney Marshes and Abney Road Cemetery. Esther Kinsky sees them as she passes through, they illustrated my life while I lived in London.

Translated from the German by Iain Galbraith

River  by Esther Kinsky

The novel is made up of 37 chapters, all linked in some way to a river, not all the Lea, several in other parts of the world: Germany, Canada, India. Some readers, including me, are reminded of WG Sebald. It is not just the walking, although it is that, or the long sentences, that too, but the meditative quality in the content, the narration of incidents on or near the river. There are even grainy photographs in the text, which may or may not relate to the chapter.

The narrator, a woman, moves to a room in north London. She is escaping or evading something unspecified and spends her days walking the River Lea. This brings to mind other rivers, the Rhine, which she grew up beside, and rivers in Canada and India as well as Europe.

It seems her life is perpetually on the move, nothing resolved, no focus, only scraps of contacts with people who are marginal and ignored like herself, and she views things from the river, and from the edges of London.

I returned on the path that looped around the filter beds and led back to the river between open terrain and the electricity pylons standing by as ever like lost, harmless giants frozen to the flat land, slender, immobile and delicate, their six arms splayed out to no conceivable purpose underlining their defencelessness, or their perplexity over the question of which way they should go next. The more familiar I became with this flat world in the milky winter light, the more I thought of the pylons as parts of the landscape that by some strange quirk of nature had surged out of the ground featherless, hairless and leafless in time immemorial, honest custodians of this intermediate realm between firm ground and a deceptive alluvial flood plain that was underwashed by countless waters; they were fine-boned guardians of the void uttering nothing but their spidery buzz and hum, a rarefied, highly-pitched song that was only audible in pauses between clattering trains, and which attempted again and again to subvert the city beyond the Lea whenever it drew a deep breath to roar. (162)

I draw your attention to a feature of this paragraph – it contains only two sentences. And its subject matter is electricity pylons.

The chapter describing the narrator’s experiences on the Hooghly River, a distributary of the Ganges, is one of the most vivid of the book. Perhaps this is because there is more of a narrative than elsewhere in the book. Some of the novel is fantasy, like the craters that appear, and other episodes may well be based on events such as the narrator’s meeting with the gypsy woman.  But mostly the reader accompanies the narrator as she observes the uneventful, storyless lives, people waiting, just getting through the day: the man at the charity shop door, the woman in the EGG store, the King making his ritual flights with the birds, passers-by, people leaving only the slightest indications of being here.

This is a novel about locations and lives that move away from the mainstream, often ignored, forgotten, in inconvenient places.

Every river is a border; that was one of the lessons of my childhood. It informs our view of what is other, forcing us to stop in our tracks and take in the opposite side. (171)

Esther Kinsky

She was born in Germany in 1956, and lived for a while in London. She is a linguist and has made a living as a translator.

River  by Esther Kinsky, first published in German as Am Fluss in 2014, and in English by Fitzcarraldo in 2018. 359pp

Translated from the German by Iain Galbraith. Winner of an English Pen Award.

A completely different novel set in Dalston, Hackney, is Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo.

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