The River by Rumer Godden

Reviewed by Kate Gardner

godden riverThis novel (novella really – even bulked out with short stories, an introduction and a preface it’s still barely 200 pages) explores childhood, and specifically that moment when you wake up from the idyll of innocence and start to see the rest of the world and understand that growing up means change.

At the start of the book Harriet is the classic middle child (though she’s actually the second of four, but Victoria is still very young) – caught between her terribly sensible older sister Bea and her wild younger brother Bogey. She is at once eager to grow up, and purely, blissfully happy with her life in the big house with the big garden backing on to a wide river teeming with life. She writes in a notebook that she hides in the cork tree that is indisputably hers, and absorbs all the details of the world around her.

The family are Europeans living in Bengal in the 1940s (when this novel was written). It draws heavily on Godden’s own experience of growing up in Bengal, with plenty of detail about the landscape, the weather, the sounds and smells and people. She does acknowledge the world war in the form of the central character Captain John, a soldier who was badly wounded and then a prisoner of war, but as the story is told effectively from Harriet’s perspective, war is a distant, uninteresting thing. It isn’t really clear why Captain John is recuperating in India, but he lives among the Europeans who run factories on the edge of a town that isn’t named.

Harriet’s river was a great slowly flowing mile-wide river between banks of mud and white sand, with fields flat to the horizon, jute fields and rice fields under a blue weight of sky. ‘If there is any space in me,’ Harriet said, when she was grown up, ‘it is from that sky.’

Despite the specific details of the setting, this story isn’t really about India, or colonialism, or war. It’s a much more universal tale of childhood. At the start of the book Harriet muses ‘children don’t have loves and wars. Or do they…of their own kind?’ The novel explores this idea, as Harriet experiences her first taste of jealousy, love and other things that are painful to learn. Bea is starting to hang around with a new friend Valerie, who Harriet doesn’t like at all. Bogey really wants to be left alone to play with the mud and bugs. Victoria is little more than a toddler, though Captain John seems to like spending time with her. Father is always at work and Mother is always resting because she is expecting another baby. So despite her large family and house full of servants, including a nanny and an ayah, Harriet is often alone.

It might all sound a little small and insignificant, but this is a rich, absorbing tale that is warm, enchanting and filled with truth. There is also a growing sense of dread, ominous overtones that the children’s world will be broken somehow. (On this note – do not read the author’s preface first, as it gives away a major plot point. Even the book’s blurb says too much in my opinion. Save them for afterward.) But it’s also often funny, with the acute observations of children who haven’t yet learned to filter their thoughts, such as when the nativity figures are unpacked:

When they were brought out of their boxes, ten days before Christmas, to stand in their cave of moss and sawdust lit by candles, Harriet’s imagination was touched again…There was a blue angel kneeling with a lap full of roses…she was always the one Harriet remembered best, for the expression of pain and smugness on her face. She looked as if she had a remarkable headache.

Some of the colonial language makes for uncomfortable reading and I can only really consider it acceptable as it’s seen through a child’s eyes. This book was published in 1946, when the Indian independence movement was in full swing –  indeed, it was achieved in 1947 – and it would have been clear all round that British rule was no longer calmly accepted. I can see why Godden didn’t touch this, but it could have made for an interesting note in Harriet’s coming of age for her to notice some hints of it.

Godden’s writing is beautiful but there are some brief sections of stream of consciousness that didn’t work for me. However, her judgement as regards childhood, and especially Harriet’s story, is spot on.

There is a wonderful scene where Mother is talking to the two older girls about puberty. Their ages are never stated but it is clear that they are old enough to need to know about periods, and how they relate to where babies come from. Godden brilliantly shows how much the girls already know and how, and depicts their very different reactions to the conversation, without ever giving the actual words of the lesson Mother is giving. The book as a whole isn’t perfect, but this was a perfect illustration of how different Harriet and Bea’s natures are, in just a few simple words.

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Kate Gardner is a book lover and reviewer based in Bristol, UK, and blogs at www.noseinabook.co.uk

Rumer Godden, The River (Virago Press: London, 2015). 978-1844088416, 208pp., paperback.

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