Riverflow – Alison Layland
‘Riverflow’, the second novel written by literary translator Alison Layland (after ‘Someone Else’s Conflict’) is a clever story that subtly blends tension, psychological observation and insights into contemporary attitudes towards environmental protection and green activism.
Though it begins with a mysterious, unexplained death, it’s far removed from canonical crime fiction, but it definitely reads as a gripping thriller, once you’ve allowed the author to spin her mesmeric web of relationships and intrigue, both petty and grand, centred around the small, fictional rural community of Foxover in Shropshire.
True to its title, ‘Riverflow’ streams on like a river, all-encompassing and ever changing: it trickles gently to begin with, it rushes and swirls savagely in places, it meanders more sedately elsewhere. In this it is far less a thriller than a novel of ideas, but if you surrender yourself to its natural rhythm, it will captivate you with the originality of its narrative.
The story provides a frank, fascinating perspective into off-grid living, as Layland portrays both the idyllic and the idiosyncratic, the triumphs and the setbacks entailed by a lifestyle choice that isn’t exactly mainstream. The chief focus is on a couple, Elin and Bede, both in their thirties and running a self-sufficient farm and craft shop in the village, while Bede, through his skill as a mechanic and engineering jack-of-all-trades, also freelances for a small solar-power contractor.
The farm, Alderleat, was originally acquired by Bede’s uncle Joe, the man whose death in a catastrophic flood is narrated in the novel’s opening chapter. Joe, though estranged from his sister Lydia, Bede’s mother, became a father figure for Bede over the years (Lydia always refused to disclose who Bede’s father was). Joe eventually came to live in Alderleat with Bede and Elin, rendering the farm self-sufficient for energy, food and water, bending the local resources, the main one being the River Severn, to their purpose by dint of hard work and ingenuity.
Bede was hit hard by Joe’s death 18 months before the story’s timeline starts. A reserved, withdrawn man, bordering on obsessive compulsive, especially when environmental protection is concerned, Bede is struggling to maintain a balance in most of his personal relationships, not to mention with his own self. He is a genuinely well-developed character, as Layland doesn’t hurry in fashioning his persona. She does it slowly but skilfully, by closely observing how Bede behaves in the myriad little interactions that make up his life.
Layland has an unerring eye for tension, and for picking up the nuances of talk and thought that accompany it. Even an off-grid life in an idyllic setting can me mired in conflict. Foxover is threatened by fracking development, spearheaded by local notable and landowner Philip Northcote, a man with a grudge against Bede since the latter’s uncle Joe bought Alderleat for a paltry sum from Northcote’s mother Marjorie. The small community is up in arms against the fracking, with Elin and Bede, both with a past of community protest, also involved. Bede himself isn’t immune to resentment, especially after he discovers his occasional business partner has had a fling with Elin.
And Elin and Bede’s relationship, although fundamentally stable, is as troubled as any in a 10-year-plus marriage, especially since Bede is firmly opposed to the idea of having children, much to Elin’s chagrin. Layland is especially effective in weaving the fabric of their relationship, a sturdy cloth with many a patch and a few irregularities, never glamorous but pretty in a naturally wholesome way. Elin is as strong as Bede and just as sensitive, though she’s hardly prone to disappearing in the woods for long walks when things threaten to sour.
While Bede is away on one of these walks, someone tampers with the pheasants kept by Northcote on his game-hunting estate bordering with Alderleat. Bede is a suspect, as he will be for a series of other small incidents, and in turn will be on the receiving end of heavy retribution by persons unknown when he is run over by a car, forcing him in a wheelchair for several weeks with a broken ankle and wrist.
This is when the story turns darker, much like Bede’s mood in reaction to the forced inactivity, which in turn causes tensions with Elin to escalate until they are virtually estranged. Layland adds another layer to the story by introducing Suzanne, the ex-wife of Bede’s uncle Joe. Bede had no idea Joe had had a family before he met him, nor that Joe left this family (including a son who later vanished) in disgrace for some ‘unforgivable’ act.
There are several other layers to the story, gradually unravelling in a surprising finale. ‘Riverflow’ isn’t a thriller in a conventional sense however, it is too complex a narrative stream to have the unabashed directness of your run-of-the-mill crime novel. Yet I found it all the more fascinating for this: once you allow yourself to be borne away on its tide, you’ll find it is full of compelling concepts, interesting insights and sensitively portrayed characters. Above and around them, Nature in its glory, at once benign and unforgiving, as central to the story as the vicissitudes of the women and men featured in it. This is in my opinion another of the achievements of this novel: it is a remarkable story of human interaction in which Nature nevertheless plays a central role, a reminder of how intimately related we are to Nature, and how close we are to irrevocably damaging it.