A gifted writer with a fine eye for detail, Powell's simmering portrait of English gentry on the brink rings true. The author's evocative imagery frequently takes us beyond the literal surfaces of life. In North Yorkshire in 1955, the body of young Danny Masters drifts undisturbed down the Stride river. Three figures walk along the river path: two young men, blond and dark, and a girl of about 17. Thomas Fairweather is the darker of the two men. The girl is his sister, Lennie, the butler's daughter who lives down at the gatekeeper's cottage.
Danny has a secret crush on Lennie. Lennie however, loves Alexander Richmond, the charming, handsome aristocrat of Richmond Hall, a once-glamorous house that has since faded and become "a little ashamed of itself." Powell focuses on Lennie and Venetia, Alexander's mother. The sad, reclusive lady of the manor, Venetia has never really gotten over the grief of her husband.
How did Danny actually die? Was he murdered? While the mystery of what happened to Danny is essential to the novel's core, the book says much more about the decay of aristocracy and the limited choices that confronted women in the 1930s and 1950s. Venetia was once a young newlywed, enthralled with her new life as the lady of Richmond Hall, years before her beloved James died and she had to face the higher taxes and death duties. As Alexander attempts to step out from the shadows of the Hall, Venetia is concerned that he's far too obsessed with Lennie.
Powell constructs a fluid, seamless montage that moves in and out of Lennie, Danny and Venetia's inner worlds. The warm days and early summers are a gift to Lennie, a magical place of sunlit alleyways, of secret gardens, and the splash of green water beyond the meadows. As the vast, blue Cambridgeshire skies break open above her, Lennie feels "as if she might dissolve."
Venetia finds comfort in Alexander and Lennie, who provide her a pathway into a future that at first seems "more important than all the grief or loss or those tedious intricacies of self." The girl would have to learn a great deal, as Venetia herself had done when she'd first arrived at Richmond Hall, barely a few years older than Lennie is now. For Venetia, Richmond Hall hasn't always been a blessing. James never wanted "the whole Lord of the Manor game."
What secrets does the river hold? The waters are black, angry and ugly: "Energy like that would only find its way to the surface again." Perhaps the river is a reflection of love, a subversive passion integral to each of Powell's characters' fates. Something is not quite right after all those years of the three of them growing up side by side. Danny and Alexander were as thick as thieves as kids, but now Alexander, the boy with the "dark, uncertain eyes" and sweet manner, has become this "hard, full-grown, saturnine man."
Lennie's love for Alexander is taut and perilous: "it lives in her imagination and on the surface of her skin and senses." His golden haze "almost blinds her." Lennie knows there were parts of her love that "did not touch" - especially for Danny who holds onto Lennie as if "he's trying to keep afloat." To Danny she's like a "ghost girl," all pale like the moon. Lennie is wilder than the saintly creature of Danny's dreams.
When the world suddenly turns off-kilter, Lennie resorts to desperate measures. She struggles with depression and the disillusionment of living a stereotypical female life. Powell cleverly sets the tone of the story by weaving elements of Lennie, Danny and Venetia's lives together in a working-class world that will inevitably clash with those who feel they are born to rule. As Lennie grows more despairing, the river within becomes a powerful symbol that loses its force quite suddenly, particularly after Danny's body is found in a gentle, reflective pool where dragonflies skim the surface and the first autumn leaves drift over the coppery shallows.
Powell's clever use of descriptive language (particularly regarding the river) enhances the novel's melancholy tone and foreshadows the story's tragic ending. Beautiful and painful, Powell leaves us with a cast of characters whose lives can only be conjectured in the aftermath of two devastating world wars, the dismantling of England's great countryhouses, and of a rapidly disappearing privileged way of life.