It’s a real pleasure today to share my publication day review of The River Between Us, the latest book by the wonderful Liz Fenwick: published by HQ, it’s now available as an e-book, in paperback, and as an audiobook. My thanks to the publishers for my advance reading copy, provided via netgalley.
It took me rather longer than it should have done to discover Liz’s books. Although I have several of her earlier ones in the depths of my kindle, the only one I’ve previously read is The Path to the Sea – but that was more than enough to make me add her to my list of favourite authors. I cared so much for its flawed characters: it was a book that had a profound emotional impact, and I felt an immense sense of loss when my reading experience was over (you’ll find my review here – and it featured in my Books of the Year list in 2019). So her latest really was a book I was determined not to miss…
A forgotten house and a secret hidden for a century…
Following the breakdown of her marriage, Theo has bought a tumbledown cottage on the banks of the river Tamar which divides Cornwall and Devon. The peace and tranquillity of Boatman’s Cottage, nestled by the water, is just what she needs to heal.
Yet soon after her arrival, Theo discovers a stash of hidden letters tied with a ribbon, untouched for more than a century. The letters – sent from the battlefields of France during WW1 – tell of a young servant from the nearby manor house, Abbotswood, and his love for a woman he was destined to lose.
As she begins to bring Boatman’s Cottage and its gardens back to life, Theo pieces together a story of star-crossed lovers played out against the river, while finding her own new path to happiness.
The River Between Us beautifully explores the mystery and secrets of a long-forgotten love affair, and will be loved by fans of Kate Morton.
Beautiful writing, and an immersive dual timeline story that entirely whisks you away – you can’t ask for much more than that, can you?
At first, this is Theo’s story, set in the present day. After her marriage breakdown, she’s left her beloved home and the gardens she nurtured behind, and bought a cottage, sight unseen, on the banks of the Tamar. Arriving late at night, it looks almost uninhabitable – daylight doesn’t help that much, but she bravely sets about lining up all the people who can help her turn it into a home, although it’s restoring the garden that really makes her heart beat faster. Money’s initially a problem – underfloor heating with a flagged floor might just be a step too far – but an inheritance helps with that, and leads to one of the book’s mysteries when she finds that her grandmother had a past she knew nothing about. And then, in a built-in cupboard in a bedroom, she finds a strongbox with a stash of letters, very emotional and written from the front in the First World War, telling a story of lost love and heartbreak.
That leads us into Lady Alice’s story, starting in 1914. The daughter of the Duke of Exeter, she’s a young lady who refuses to follow the expected path to an arranged and suitable marriage, having developed an interest in women’s suffrage, a rash act of rebellion seeing her exiled to the family estate on the Devon side of the Tamar. Overseen by her ailing Nanny and the constantly disapproving butler, she finds some of the freedom she craves in the house’s grounds on the edge of the river – and grows ever closer to gillie Zach, who nurtures her love of fishing, shows a surprising interest in Shakespeare’s sonnets, but also begins to win her heart.
I’ll admit that I did feel a bit of a wrench when the book first shifted focus to Alice’s story – I was particularly enjoying following Theo’s progress, making new friends and exploring the various threads of the mysteries she’d uncovered – but the stories very satisfyingly wrap themselves around each other, with particularly strong links and echoes, and I became more than happy to allow the two stories to unfold and carry me along with them.
The book’s setting is exceptionally well drawn, and becomes very much part of the story – the river separates the boatman’s cottage and the estate of what is now a hotel, but also a metaphor for the obstacles to a relationship between Alice and Zach, and the focus on plants and gardens is quite beautifully echoed in both stories. I particularly loved the romance – entirely real and convincing, one of those love affairs that makes you ache with its impossibility of a happy ending, constrained by the conventions of the time and the approach of war. But I also really enjoyed the way secrets were layered, then those layers slowly peeled away in both past and present stories – perhaps sometimes driven by coincidence rather more than I’d have chosen, but this is after all a work of fiction. There were so many small touches that I really enjoyed – especially the present day discovery of unidentified wartime remains in a field in France, and the part played by DNA research in uncovering their identity.
The characterisation is excellent. At first, Alice perhaps isn’t particularly likeable – there’s a selfishness about her, a touch of petulance, but it’s all very much a part of her privileged upbringing and the expectations and conventions of the time. It certainly didn’t interfere with me feeling increasingly deeply for her as the story progressed. Both threads have a strong supporting cast too – particularly Theo’s family, and the friends she discovers, but there are also individuals who win your heart threaded through Alice’s story.
But above all, I loved the storytelling – this is a book that begins steadily, shifts effortlessly between present and past, fascinates through its flawed and complex characters and all the cleverly wrought links between past and present. And it most certainly really makes you feel – the forbidden and impossible love entirely broke my heart. This book was totally enthralling, and I recommend it really highly.
About the author
Writer, ex-pat expert, wife, mother of three, and dreamer turned doer….
Award winning author of The Cornish House, A Cornish Affair, A Cornish Stranger, Under A Cornish Sky, The Returning Tide, One Cornish Summer, The Path to the Sea and the novella A Cornish Christmas Carol. After ten international moves, I’m a bit of a global nomad. It’s no wonder my heart remains in Cornwall.
The River Between Us is out on 10 June 2021, and I’m now writing the next book.
My books are available in Dutch, Germany, Portuguese, French, Estonia, Norwegian, Danish, Turkish, Swedish, Latvian, Serbian and Czech.