Wednesday 18 May 2022

Review by Beth Gaylard of "A Mile of River" by Judith Allnatt

I just read this in one sitting and really enjoyed it - thanks to Jonathan Taylor for recommending it. It’s a story of farming folk in the 1970s. Although the action takes place over the summer of 1976, when England and Wales were in the grip of a drought from May until September, the catalyst is the mysterious break up of the farmer’s (Henry’s) marriage and the disappearance of his wife Sylvie over a decade before the novel opens. Allnatt is ruthless in describing Henry’s emotional illiteracy but she is also very precise and concise in her language, which makes everything he says and does to his long suffering children feel like a knife stab to the reader. But I didn’t stop reading; I really cared about Jess and Tom (and Tom’s kitten) all the way through. This is one of Allnatt’s first novels, and already, she is skilled in presenting powerful negative emotions and the damage they do. When Henry should reach out to his family, or when he could do, he does the opposite - a mean action, a spiteful put down. It's not clear why, either. It just seems to be behaviour learned from his (annoying) mother.  

The descriptions of the rural farming landscape and how it alters in the 1976 drought are evocative; I was sixteen that year and remember it being very much as shown. Only two thunderstorms in the whole four months, I used to go for midnight walks when it was too hot to sleep. It was my little secret and helped me deal with 0-level nerves (I deserved to be nervous, all my revision was so last minute).

There are positive moments too, including an upbeat ending (no spoilers). I think this novel well deserved its initial success; and since then it has taken its place in the body of fiction about the darker aspects of life in rural England.

About the reviewer
Beth Gaylard is a writer and PhD Creative Writing student at Leicester University. Published works include an SF novel Firebrands and various poems. Her work in progress is a piece of rural dystopia. Her home is in Leicestershire.

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