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REVIEW: Invisible River

Invisible River: Helena McEwen Bloomsbury 2012

The quality of writing in this book impressed me from the outset, although I didn’t know if there would be enough story to carry the style. I needn’t have worried; the novel grew on me, taking me from admiration to somewhere warmer.For all the use of present tense, first person voice and the vivid style, the novel has the chronological framework of an academic year, as if it had been a book titled ‘Eve goes to Art School’. It falls into that genre that’s called ‘literary’ but covers the same territory as young adult, or is it new adult? We’ll leave why novels primarily for young people and about young people are labelled like that and literary snobs look down at adults for reading them for others to discuss, as they have surely done. However, I do wonder if I’d have taken to it when I was younger, for it does take a dark turn.

Eve has left Cornwall and a difficult situation at home to study art in London. I couldn’t get a hold of when this was set, although the students are funded by grants. On her first day, she meets lively Bianca, more down-to-earth Rob and sweet but determined Cecile, all first years like her, if from different backgrounds, and they strike up a friendship that will stay firm through a difficult year. Eve is trying to find her own style of painting and, indeed, who she is away from home, and, therefore, who she is going to be as an adult. But her past can’t be escaped, and Eve’s alcoholic, grief-stricken father turns up in London, bringing with him a burden of responsibility Eve feels she should shoulder, but can’t. So when her father then goes missing, guilt and empathy lead her to despair, which will affect the painting she left home to pursue.

What the book does magnificently is convey how an artist perceives things. Granted, perhaps not all artists’ head spaces are like Eve’s, but the book is replete with colour, as is the London that she discovers. It was strange to read a book that was as much a love letter to London as anything when I was meant to visit London this month, had circumstances not prevented me.

I wondered whether Eve was a synaesthete as she often perceives colours as sounds. She’s also receptive or extremely imaginative, so she has a sense of London, its history, sacred river and the invisible world that she’s gradually trying to paint that might be too fanciful for some, although I found it convincing. It also brings the darkness that I talked about when she imagines/senses her missing father’s agony.

There is a romantic subplot that is as powerful as everything in the book, and offers hope, in that going for it is a sign of healing for Eve, and it provides some propulsion in the final part of the novel, although it’s just as important that Eve finds a way of assimilating what happened to her enough to use it and embark on her painting again.

As the girls themselves note, all their tutors are men, always criticising their work, mostly in ways that say more about them than the artwork in front of them. But their alliance of creativity helps the quartet. Evie is allowed to experiment, and by giving us her point of view of the process, creating art is presented as a worthwhile activity. What Eve and her fellow students get out of their gallery visits was educational for a Philistine like me when it comes to visual arts.

This entry was originally posted at http://feather-ghyll.dreamwidth.org/119277.html. Please comment wherever you prefer to.

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November 2017

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