Book review: ‘River’ by Esther Kinsky

File under Sebaldian.

‘River’ by Esther Kinsky

I read this novel after reading a review of it on a W.G. Sebald-themed blog. The parallels with Sebald’s work, which I admire very much, seemed clear bordering on blatant. So I thought I’d give it a go.

Having now read River, I can confirm the Sebaldian similarities are glaring: an unnamed, German narrator living in the UK, but travelling to other parts of the world; a confusingly disjointed timeline; empty, melancholic landscapes; wonderfully precise prose; indistinct black and white photographs; text translated from the German by Iain Galbraith (who previously translated Sebald).

I enjoyed River very much indeed, even though (or perhaps especially because), like reading Sebald, the experience is very difficult to describe. It’s a strange, haunting form of writing, and it works for me.

Although the novel is titled in the singular, it features many different rivers from a number of countries, from India to Canada. But most of the action (such as it is) takes place around the River Lea in London. Kinsky’s long, detailed descriptions of the east London edgelands are wonderfully precise, contrasting with the remarkably little we learn about her narrator. During the section set in Canada, for example, we hear of her young child. But the child is never mentioned again.

As with Sebald, photography features prominently in this novel. Indeed, while there are fewer images than with Sebald, the photography is more to the forefront. Whereas Sebald simply illustrates his prose with photographs, Kinsky’s character describes how she obtained her camera, and how she goes about taking and collecting photographs.

An enjoyable, perplexing, Sebaldian read.


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