Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
‘Lost in slumber, all the scents, the sounds, the colours of her past rise up, all that she has buried – the secrets, the darkness – return to her.’
What have you done? What on earth have you done? (Prologue)
The main storyline of The River Home, by Hannah Richell, takes place over a period of one week at Windfalls, when Lucy, the middle daughter of the family, springs on everyone that she wants to be married, in a few days’ time, at the home where she grew up.
However, the main focus of the story is the youngest daughter, Margot, and her strained relationship with her mother Kit.
To add clarity to the story, the author intersperses incidents from the past when the parents first fell in love with the old farmhouse, then again to events which occurred when the girls were becoming young adults. The storyline unfolds with each chapter being devoted to one of the protagonists during this brief period of time.
Margot left home as a teenager and has been away for about eight years. In response to texts from her two sisters, she is returning home for the wedding. She has not informed any of the family that she is coming. The reader soon comes to believe that the tension between Margot and her mother grew out of what is hinted at in the prologue.
All of the female characters (the men mentioned play only minor roles) are strong but have different personalities and the author highlights these beautifully.
Kit, the girls believe, was never there for them emotionally as they were growing up. Kit has always struggled with parenthood. After Eve, her first daughter was born, Kit could not cope with the fact that her previous life had been so bluntly curtailed by another. ‘Instead, there was a third among them, a third who ran to her own punishing schedule and punctuated their hours with the rudest of interruptions’ (72). Kit fell into depression until one day with ‘the faintest thrill of anticipation caught in her throat, she began to type’ (79).
For the girls growing up, Kit was an embarrassment. She lived in a perpetually different time zone from the rest of the family and had no sense of pride in her dress. She had never been one to bend to social convention.
Eve, the eldest, is the organiser, the worrier, the responsible one with jobs to cross off a list and surrogate mother to her younger sisters. Margot is hot and unpredictable, just like her mother, and the one who has not been forgiven for past actions. Lucy has always been ‘a wild tangle of a girl’ (4), impetuous, prone to spontaneous gestures and saying whatever was on her mind regardless of the consequences and yet she is the one who tries to reconcile the family members by bringing them all back together after such a long time.
The author has infused the story with a strong sense of place. In the euphoria of their love for each other, Kit and Ted are drawn to Windfalls, ‘the building swallowing them up like fish disappearing into the dank, cavernous interior of a whale’ (68). Yet later, in her depression Kit says, ‘I thought this would be the place. But it’s not. It’s stifling us’ (75).
For Margot, on her return for the wedding, she feels that ‘walking through the door of her childhood home is an act of regression’ (86). She feels that she has been stripped of what she has become and propelled back to the shades of who she once was. She finds it infuriating to be so undone by a place. When the girls were growing up, they carved the family member’s initials in the tree marking their place, their belonging. Before her wedding, Lucy acknowledges that her family home was a place of dysfunction and chaos but also love and safety. Even the river nearby had been a place of pain. Yet was also a place of joy.
Within this storyline there is also loss and shame, such a destructive emotion bringing with it, feelings of self- doubt and growing resentment. Each of the protagonists has at some time in the story had to face both of these emotions, leaving them with a belief that what was lost was irreplaceable.
I was somewhat perplexed during my reading of this book as to the title of the novel, The River Home. Is the writer referring to Windfalls, the name of the property with a river nearby? As I progressed with my reading, near the end of the story, I came across the words again but in an entirely different context. ‘Margot adds river water to the basin. She isn’t quite sure why it has felt so important to carry the river home to Lucy, but something about the gesture feels right’ (350). This made me wonder if this is where the title has more significance.
Hannah Richell’s writing includes beautiful detailed descriptions, not just of scenery but also for behaviours, feelings, personal attributes and specific activities. I particularly like the way she described the strained situation between Margot and her mother. ‘Kit and Margot are two women standing on different sides of a river, with the past, a vast unfathomable flow churning between them’ (88). This is just one example of the creative writing by this author.
I found the author’s use of contrast also gave enrichment to the writing. She talks of laughter being familiar and alien like a distant bell that hasn’t been chimed for a long time (29) and Kit seeing Margot as familiar and yet remote (50). She also highlights the differences between the writing styles of Kit and Ted in their chosen professions, one daydreaming and fantasy and the other grounded in reality (181).
For me, Hannah Richell’s novel, The River Home, is a thoughtful and rich reflection on family relationships and actions. This book has much to give the reader.
By Hannah Richell