“The River King” by Alice Hoffman – Highly Recommended

As soon as I started “The River King” I was smiling at having found something distinctive and wonderful.

I luxuriated in surrendering myself into the hands of a dryly witty, joyfully articulate and completely omniscient narrator who curated my journey through the lives of a small group of people at a long-established boarding school in a tiny Massachusetts town.

The form is close to that of a well-edited early twentieth-century novel but the sensibility is that of the early twenty-first century.

Even from the beginning, it was clear that. beneath the apparently benign narration, something darker lay in wait for these people. The setting seems to be one of civilised tranquillity but the respectability is no deeper than a coat of paint. Scratch it and a culture of violent misogyny and corrupt privilege is revealed that compromises both the school and the town.

The writing style is new to me and I’m not sure what to call it. Atonal lyricism perhaps? 

What I’m trying to describe is a duality that means the surface of the text is as fixed and calm as ice on a lake but beneath that layer moves a strong current of emotion that the ice somehow amplifies rather than hides.

I’m listening to the audiobook version. The narrator, Laural Merlington, is very skilled. She could make the text into many things but she manages her inflexions so that the authorial voice narrating the story is always calm, no matter how emotional the dialogue becomes. This doesn’t dampen down the emotion. it creates a quiet in which it can be heard more clearly. I’m sure this is deliberate. I wonder if she picked it up from the frequent references in the book to listening well enough to hear what silence is telling you? 

Anyway, it’s like a really effective soundtrack, one that sustains the atmosphere of a film without bringing attention to itself.

Although it was written nineteen years ago, it seems to me that “The River King” understands the culture that has given America Trump as President and has turned the GOP into carrion crows, pecking at the corpse of the body politic.

The story takes place in a private co-ed school, attended mainly by the privileged. It deals with what happens when two people who are not privileged and who have no desire to join, encounter the unwritten but ruthlessly enforced rules of the prevailing hierarchy. It describes a culture of Patriarchy established by the schools wife-abusing and possibly murderous founder and preserved by traditions passed in secret from boy to boy. It shows the price paid by the victims, by those who collude with the perpetuators of the system and those who stand by and do nothing. It isn’t a polemic but it is unflinching in showing the dynamics of corruption.

There is a part, early in the book, where the best looking, most privileged senior boy is brought to the reader’s attention by the omniscient narrator.

The narration is chilling. What it describes lies at the heart of corruption. It’s the infection that rots a society. Yet it’s described in the accurate, unemotional, judgement-free tone a vivisectionist might use when dictating their observations on how the heart of the animal they have just sliced open still beats.

So the handsome and privileged boy is described as being aware of his privilege, of being grateful for it and of being greedy for more.

Grateful and greedy. That’s a disturbing combination in the privileged. I think I’d prefer entitled and self-satisfied.

The boy revealed in this way will do anything and get others to do anything necessary to protect and expand his privilege.

The narrator then explains the group the boy leads. Through their dishonest response to an unfortunate circumstance that affected them all, these boys, who already valued conformity and loyalty, have learned that, while following rules may breed unity, breaking the rules together ensures it.

So they have institutionalised rule-breaking, built it into a hazing that ensures loyalty and fundamentally corrupts all who carry out the task required to earn acceptance into the group.

It seems to me that this captures the values and behaviours of the US Senators who have kept Trump in power while enriching themselves. Grateful and greedy for privilege and willing to sacrifice their own integrity/morality if it buys them membership of the Big Boys Club.

The story hangs from the death of two people, decades apart: the wife of the school’s first headmaster and a present-day pupil. Both are deemed to have committed suicide. Both haunt the school, either literally or in the memories of the people who knew them but did not save them, depending on how you read the text.

Yet the story is not a whodunnit. The deaths aren’t these to be solved or avenged. Their function seems to be to present the main characters in the book with choices about how they will react to deaths. What will they take responsibility for? What will they sacrifice? What will they bury and try to live with?

The core characters are a scholarship girl who knows the boy who dies; a teacher at the school whose photographs show her things that shouldn’t be there and who is questioning the path she’s chosen of a safe marriage and a quiet life; a third-generation policeman who lost someone he loved early in life, went wild for a while, is tolerated on the Force for the sake of father’s and grandfather’s memory and who cannot find it in himself to let go of things that feel wrong to him, and an older teacher approaching the end of her life, who lives with her regrets for the things she did not do.

The narrator displays these people to us candidly, sharing their thoughts, their doubts and their hopes. Yet the narrator is not the advocate of the characters. The narrator isn’t trying to win the reader over to the side of a character of a set of characters. The narrator’s sub-text seems to me to be: the world is as it is and it often isn’t very nice. You may not be able to make a difference but the choices you make will change you even if they do not change the world.

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