Invisible River, By Helena McEwen

All about Eve; private fears in public places
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The Independent Culture

Helena McEwen, a graduate of both the Chelsea and Camberwell Schools of Art, has presumably drawn on her own experience for her third novel, which is about Eve, a lonely and introverted art student trying to escape a difficult family past.

The intensity of her previous novels, The Big House and Ghost Girl, is present again in this one, in which she sets Eve's impressions of the world around her against the reality of daily life at college. McEwen is a writer capable of great beauty, and she displays those skills once again.

Eve falls in love with Zeb, a dark-haired sculptor, but he is involved in a stormy relationship with blonde Suzanne. Meanwhile, her father is slowly drinking himself to death and, unable to live on in their cottage without his only daughter, follows her to college. His pain at losing Eve's mother many years before, however, is too much for him; Eve's own unrequited love is less tragic – but perhaps more recognisable by comparison to her father's.

Moments of revelation weave through the narrative, as an "invisible river" of epiphanic quality that flows alongside the real and ancient Thames. Eve's loss of her father, for example, is an almost unbearably moving scene.

Such quality of thought and expression sits oddly, though, with the banality of college chat. Perhaps this is McEwen's intention, but there are inconsistencies. Eve's friends Rob and Bianca are drawn in strong, bold colours throughout, but another, Cecilia, is blank until she suddenly pops up, about two-thirds of the way through, now being referred to as "Ces". She has no identity, though, and has made no impact so far. Why is she suddenly so important to Eve? There is no answer.

McEwen's very spare and precise prose makes private moments of intensity vibrate with emotion. But in the more public scenes, with Eve's friends and college tutors, it takes on an almost amateurish hue, as though McEwen is not quite sure how to recreate plausible conversations. I suspect that she is trying to offset private and public, light and dark, but it's a struggle.

Perhaps this novel has been more of a struggle as a whole for her, or perhaps she wanted to challenge herself, and improve on her weaknesses instead of playing to her strengths. She is a truly gifted writer but there is the odd sense of a deliberate reining-in of those gifts here.