Caught by the River


Ken Worpole | 22nd March 2018

Ken Worpole assesses Esther Kinsky’s River, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions and out now.

Books, films and photographic essays about the River Lea continue to come thick and fast.  In the past year we’ve seen Polly Braden and David Campany’s Adventures in the Lea Valley, Tony Travers’ 50th anniversary history, From Wasteland to Playground, and artist and ecologist Simon Read’s erudite Cinderella River. There’s something about this mysterious river  – which winds some sixty miles from the plains of Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire via the suburbs of north London, and then through post-industrial Hackney and Bow to the Thames – that attracts those who find something endearing about its mash-up of the pastoral, the industrial and the serendipitous. It is a place not of visual splendour but of moods, strange intimations and half-remembered dreams.

Now we have a fictionalised memoir, River, by German novelist Esther Kinsky. This is an evocation of a period of some years when she lived on the borders of Stoke Newington and Clapton, close to Springfield Park, and the River Lea/Lee (the spelling changes along its journey as often as the mood). For her anonymous narrator, the river took on the role of a lost domain, or, more disturbingly, of ‘the Erl-King’s enchanted realm’ of German folklore. It is beautifully written (and sensitively translated by Iain Galbraith), finally capturing the enigmatic landscape of the Lea more than anything else I have read – it is that perfect.

River gains much of its ambiguous atmosphere by the uncertainty of the time in which it is set (enhanced by a series of austere black and white photographs). Some of the scenes appear to come from thirty or forty years ago; others could have happened yesterday. Time is fluid and recursive.  In addition to exploring the alder groves and scrubland of just one small stretch of the river – that separating Upper Clapton from Walthamstow Marshes – the book also carries the stories of people who live close by in what remains one of the poorest parts of London. Here the narrator shares her life with Hasidic Jewish shop-keepers, West Indian pool-players, a Croat charity shop manager, an African refugee, Kurdish taxi-drivers, a Pakistani internet café manager, a young woman punk – people living on the edges of mainstream society. So too are the places of daily sanctuary: a public wash-house, the post office queue, a Polish supermarket, internet café, charity shops, Abney Park Cemetery gatehouse, a refugee centre, a greasy spoon cafe.

There are interludes in this dawn-to-dusk evocation of the Lea world, when the narrator describes her memories of rivers in other cities – the St Lawrence, the Oder, the Rhine, the Tisza, the Hooghly – to which family and friends have been scattered by the 20th century’s catastrophic history. It is a story of the lost and found, the rivers and the seas, and lives lived in the interstices of decaying brick terraces and charity shops, to the sound of seagulls and sirens.


River by Esther Kinsky is translated by Iain Galbraith, and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. It is available here, priced £12.99.