OR: The River King

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #26:-


Alice Hoffman

Chatto & Windus, £15.99

The small Massachusetts town of Haddan is home to the exclusive and prestigious Haddan School. Town and School exist in a form of symbiosis, the former’s population resentful of but financially dependent on the latter. August Pierce, a scholarship student, is unsuited to life among the School’s spoiled rich kids. He wants no part of its secret brotherhood with their barbaric hazing rituals. When Pierce drowns in mysterious circumstances it’s convenient for the authorities to write him off as a suicide; scandals at the School are always hushed up in this way, the Town’s co-operation being rewarded each time with the endowment of some new public amenity. Only on this occasion there are people determined to drag the truth out into the open and shatter the illusions that sustain Haddan’s statu quo, no matter the cost to themselves or others.

This is a ghost story, though the actual presence of any spirits per se remains open to question, as such things do in real life. Each of the main characters is haunted; student Carlin Leander by Gus Pierce, the friend she drove away, teacher Helen Davis by the memory of a past romance, police officer Abel Grey by guilt over the suicide of his teenage brother, and Betsy Chase is haunted by Grey himself, the man she loves but knows she mustn’t have. Slowly the past invades the present, until the only way these driven people can find redemption is through some dramatic gesture, a break with all that has gone before.

This is the first book I’ve read by Hoffman, but barring death and taxes it won’t be the last. She writes like a recording angel, adroitly stage managing a large cast of characters, giving the reader full measure of sadness and joy, evoking small town America with such a strong sense of place you can see the chintz curtains moving, and she makes it all seem so easy. Twin Peaks, but this time done with feeling.

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