Invisible River by Helena McEwan

How extraordinary to open a new novel by an author you have grown to love and discover that her heroine was setting off from your home town on the same journey that you have made many, many times.

… I saw St Michael’s Mount slip away behind the hedges, with the sun glinting on the sea.

“Let me go!” I shouted to the sea, and then the hedges and into the marshes at Marazion.

And all the way through Cornwall past Redruth and Camborne and Bodmin Moor and St Austell I could feel the pull of my father left alone.

I was halfway into Devon before it happened.

it was because of those tunnels cut in the red rock; you plunge into them after the miles of sealight, and the tentacles couldn’t hold on. They had to let do, and then the city of London began to hum like a magnet, pulling me towards it …

Eve is leaving her home in Cornwall to go to art school in London. Her emotions are caught perfectly. Cornwall is lovely, but when you are young and your head is full of dreams you want more. There are places to go, people to meet, sights to see, such a big world to explore …

But Eve worried about her dad. There had only been the two of them since her mother died when Eve was just five years old, and she loved him dearly. He had been a good man, a thoughtful and creative man, but his loneliness had pulled him towards alcoholism.

Soon though she was caught up in a new life. The joy of finally being at art school, of being part of the big city, of being part of a new group of friend who have dreamed the same dream…

Through Eve’s eyes I saw London afresh, I relived student life, and most of all I saw the colours of her exciting new world, the art she sees, and the art it inspires.

I squeeze the tubes of oil paint on to the palette, one by one. I love the colours and their secret singing. Aureolin, a gentle golden yellow that is soft and hums, and high-pitched lemon yellow, sharp and startling, then the low velvet tone of alizarin crimson, and the seductive cobalt blue. It fills me with longing, if cobalt blue was a man I’d run away with him. He calls with a longing to far away. Blue is a calling-away colour and its sound is a sound so beautiful it makes you want to leave the earth. Not red though, red pipes up, especially cadmium scarlet. ‘Do-do-doooo’, it says like a trumpet, it runs in your blood the same sound, ‘yes, this is life!’ It gets hot and passionate. If you put it in a painting it jumps forward, ‘I am here!’ it says, ‘right here, ME!’ and I love red for that. Then the beautiful violets, half red, half blue. Cobalt violet, singing in the range next to pink, but with more majesty, more mystery, and ultramarine violet, gentle, tender, like the shadows in the twilight, but deep, with dignity and a hidden depth, like someone who walks among people but knows they are really a seraph.

There are wonderful colours, wonderful imagery on every page, lighting up a simple coming of age story.

The world is seen through the eyes of one girl, one girl living entirely in the present.

That meant that her friends’ characters are not explored in any detail, that practical concerns are neglected … but for me that didn’t matter, living with Eve, seeing the world through her eyes, was wonderful.

I loved seeing London again, visiting the galleries that I have missed since I left – this book reminded me just how much I would love to be able to visit the Rothko Room at Tate Modern again – and I loved being an art student.

I loved her relationships with her friends, her fellow students, her tutors. And I particularly liked Miss Pym, the college secretary, who I suspect was named after a certain lady novelist …

I must confess though that I was a little disappointed when the story briefly returned to Cornwall. Although the setting was very, very close to home it wasn’t my Cornwall, it was an idealised Cornwall, seen not through the eyes of a native but through the eyes of a visitor.

Not a major issue, you wouldn’t notice it if you didn’t live here, but I fear that I was beginning to gush, so I had to mention it.

Cornwall and London meet when Eve finds her father  slumped on her doorstep.  She can’t cope and shouts at him to go. He disappears and, desperately worried, she realises that she is all she has and that she must find him.

Eve has to reconcile her love for her father with her need to live her own life.

“Sometimes it’s all too much, don’t you think?”

“That’s why people paint, Eve, why they write music or sing or make films. Because they can’t stand it either”

“Don’t forget the good things”, she says as we cross Trafalgar Square between the huge lions.”

She sees London’s darker colours, and they are reflected in her art.

This is the real coming of age …

Invisible River is a quiet book, driven by character and not plot, with a lovely narrative voice, rich colourful prose and a moving emotional journey.

A lovely book to wander through.

And now it is gone I am left wondering what will happen to Eve and her friends, and wishing that I could step back into their world …

7 responses

  1. I must read this – I am in need of Cornwall sustenance after a lovely weekend there, and realising that I am unlikely to be there again in 2011. I was about to ask you for some recommendations…

    • There’s not too much Cornwall verity, but I do think you would like this book. I haven’t noticed too many new Cornish novels lately, but I’m going to try to get everything up to date on the Reading Cornwall page soon, and I’ll let you know if I spot anything.

  2. Your review was absolutely stunning. I loved the quote you included about the colors..what magical words the author used to make this story pop off the pages and into my mind! 😀

    • Isn’t it wonderful? If you ever feel like a trip to London or being an art student, track down a copy of this book!

  3. This sounds interesting. A real honest review, especially when part of it is set from what you know in your own area. Sometimes that can be a blessing sometimes not.

    • The Cornish bits were very, very local – Eve travelled to and from a station I could walk to in ten minutes! They weren’t entirely wrong but they weren’t Cornwall from the perspective of an art student who grew up here.

  4. Thank you for this one Fleur – I so enjoyed it. I spend quite a lot of time in London and could track Eve’s movements through the city and could see the skies and lights she was talking about. Her book made me really regret that I cannot see colours in an artist’s way or have the imagination of the four friends. Like you I would love to know what happened to them.

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