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From Barnes & NobleA River Runs Through It
Like Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, the omniscient teller of Alice Hoffman's The River King has a profound affinity for water. Unlike Ishmael, whose story ends tragically, this narrator, and we, her readers, find in the water's depths the perfect metaphor for the rushing currents of life. For this reason, water is everywhere in Hoffman's latest foray into North American magic realism. There are countless floods and storms, overcoat pockets gushing with river water, a swimming pool as haunted as any house-on-the-hill, a newborn child set in the rushes of the river like the baby Moses.
The setting is Hadden, Massachusetts, which is also the name of the town's elite boarding school, and the river that runs through them both. Here we encounter a large and compelling cast of characters, both "townies" and Hadden School faculty and students, all of them caught up in a mystery that revolves around a death that seems to be a suicide. In what often feels like literary sleight-of-hand, Hoffman brings her players on stage to play their scenes with such grace that you almost forget that you haven't known them for years.
The story is stitched together by the threads of two loves. One thread connects local cop Abel Grey, a tall, handsome loner and a self-confessed emotional recluse, to photography teacher Betsy Chase, the woman who unwittingly brings him out of hiding. The other thread connects two students, Carlin Leander, a fine looking, dirt-poor, independent-thinker-of-a-girl attending Hadden on a swimming scholarship, and Gus Pierce, a hopelessly homely renegade of a boy, half Holden Caulfield and half Borstal Boy. Of equal importance to the novel are the ghosts who haunt this story, including Annie Howe, the long-suffering wife of a former headmaster at the school, and Abel's kid brother, whose death at 17 was also suspicious. But most importantly, there is the "recently deceased," who shows up in Betsy Chase's photographs as a shimmering aura.
Hoffman's prose fairly overflows these pages with lush images of animal and plant life and the weather, which is predictably wet: "A cold rain began to fall at a steady pace, hour after hour, until its rhythm was all anyone could hear. This was no ordinary rain, for the rainfall was black, a rain of algae." Or, in the occasional lull between showers: "Indian summer came to Hadden in the middle of the night when no one was watching, when people were safely asleep in their beds. Before dawn, mist rose in the meadows as the soft, languid air drifted over fields and riverbanks." In fact many chapters begin with such passages, affirming again and again that human life, even in these modern times, exists within and is ever affected by the natural world. And maybe part of what makes Hoffman's use of the hyperbole of magical realism so meaningful is that it sometimes takes a bigger-than-life natural world to wake us up to its very real wonders.
Abel, Betsy, Carlin, and Gus face a number of whale-size moral dilemmas in The River King, moral concerns that are at once contemporary and timeless. But finally it is the river itself -- or perhaps in the very turn of phrase Hoffman means us to make, King River -- who stands sentinel over all the human strivings and failures enacted along its banks and in its tumbling stream. It is in this river that, as Ishmael says, "We see ourselves...the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all."
Susan Thames is the author of a book of short stories, As Much As I Know. Her novel I'll Be Home Late Tonight was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.
About the Author
Alice Hoffman is the New York Times bestselling author of Turtle Moon, At Risk, Property Of, Angel Landing, Practical Magic, Second Nature, White Horses, and Here on Earth. She lives outside Boston.