Throughout history, rivers have been important to us. They were the original roads cutting through overgrown, impassable lands. Whether navigable or dangerously fast flowing, rivers have always attracted us. Ancient civilisations settled beside them and mapped out territories using them as boundaries. Villages, towns, cities and factories have sprung up alongside them. Rivers can represent imprisonment or freedom depending on which bank you are standing on. It’s no surprise then, to see them feature as characters themselves in novels. With their meandering habits and potential dangers, rivers lend themselves to the drama of storytelling.
Spilt Milk was in part inspired by a river. I was visiting friends in Suffolk and went for a walk late in the afternoon. I ended up by a river, staring at the water, mulling over ideas. I realised I had found the location for a novel I was planning. The small, out-of-the-way river with its slow waters and overgrown banks suited the themes I was interested in writing about – the passing of time, hidden histories in families, the stories we keep and the ones we allow to slip away from us. I imagined two sisters living in a cottage near that isolated stretch of water. By the time I had walked back in the dark, I had the beginnings of a novel and the perfect riverside location to set it in.
Here are my top ten novels that feature rivers or inland waters.
The Secret River by Kate Grenville
The story centres on William Thornhill, born poor and wretched in the last decades of the 18th century in London. He grows up to be a Thames riverman, and after being found guilty of theft is transported to Australia as a convict. Pardonned, he builds a new life for him and his family, finding land along the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales. It is here with the wide river running as a backdrop to events that terrible violence erupts between the settlers and the aboriginal people of the region.
Deliverance by James Dickey
Published in 1970, James Dickey’s first novel was made into a film by John Boorman. It’s a nightmarish story set in the American wilderness on a fictional river where the rapids are dangerous and so are the locals. Four city-dwellers take to the water for a weekend canoe trip and only three will return, forever changed by their harrowing experiences.
Waterland by Graham Swift
Set in the East Anglian Fens, the story of Tom, a fifty-something history teacher, and his wife Mary is heartbreaking and poignant. When Mary is arrested for stealing a baby, Tom begins to tell stories of the past to his students, relating over two hundred years of the histories of the Fens and their inhabitants. A novel of waterways, rivers and nature, incest, madness, tragedy, loss and love.
Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome
Published in 1889 and still in print, this is a delightful story of three men and a fox terrier called Montmorency, who decide to take a leisurely boat trip up the Thames. It’s a great insight into British middle-class society in the late 19th century and at the same time the humour is surprisingly modern.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The rivers in Beloved represent birth and death, possible salvation and inherent danger. Set after the Civil War, this is an epic tale of slavery in America. A pregnant slave girl called Sethe escapes from a brutal plantation called Sweet Home. She gives birth on the banks of a river and makes her way to kind of freedom, but years later a meeting with another slave from Sweet Home brings back the terrible ghosts of the past.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
This heartbreaking novel starts and finishes on the banks of the Salinas river in California. Set in the 1930s during the Great Depression, Lennie, a big ‘childman’, and his friend and protector of sorts George are down on their luck. Penniless and hungry, they find work at a ranch in a valley. It is there, where the two friends believe there luck has finally turned good, that tragedy will strike.
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
The first in a trilogy, this is a rich and glorious novel, set at a time just before the Opium Wars in China. The story begins along the banks of the holy river Ganges. An all-engrossing historical saga.
Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
An American missionary family in the late 1950s move to a village in the Belgian Congo close to the Kwilu River. Woefully unequipped for their new life, the five women in the Price family, a mother and four daughters, narrate the story of their attempts to survive in a quickly changing, politically fragile country.
Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
I have always loved this Edwardian classic. The characters are glorious: Ratty, Mole, Badger and the fabulous Mr Toad. The river is a whole other character too, a river that, as Mole says, carries, “a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Although the characters in this novel live by a lake rather than a river, I am including Housekeeping for its haunting depictions of water. Lucille and Ruth, two orphaned sisters, live beside a deep lake where their grandfather died and then later their mother also drowned. The novel is a mesmerising reflection of life, loss and belonging.
Amanda Hodgkinson is an award-winning writer who grew up in a small Essex fishing village before moving to Suffolk and attending the University of East Anglia. She now lives and works in southwest France with her husband and their two daughters. Her novels 22 Britannia Road and Spilt Milk are published by Penguin in paperback and eBook. Read more.