This novel was a welcome surprise that came to me via a roundabout route. It began when I attended a Society of Authors ‘at home’ event – a workshop hosted by Lauren James, author of The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and Green Rising, and founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League. The focus of the session was how to bring climate concerns into fiction set in the present day – not necessarily foregrounding the various issues, but rather weaving in details as part of the daily lives and concerns of the characters.
I find it irritating to read fiction set in the present day that makes no reference to the climate emergency – especially when characters are taking flights here and there, driving big cars and eating steak in restaurants. It’s almost as if there’s a parallel world to ours with no looming crisis and with no need to change and adapt. It seems, both in young adult and adult fiction, that climate awareness is largely limited to ‘cli-fi’ – fiction usually set in the future, often involving fantasy. (An honourable exception to this is Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood – see our summer round-up.)
After the workshop I joined the Climate Fiction Writers League and was invited by Lauren to write a conversation piece with another author. This author turned out to be Alison Layland, whose novel, Riverflow, was published in 2019. As I haven’t yet published adult fiction with an environmental theme (working on it) Alison is to read my non-fiction title, This Book is Cruelty Free – Animals and Us. (For anyone who doesn’t yet acknowledge the link between animal agriculture and the climate crisis, please read the book, or for a more comprehensive overview, Philip Lymbery’s Sixty Harvests Left.) I will add the link to my conversation piece with Alison when it’s online.
Knowing nothing of Alison Layland or her work, I found myself immediately drawn to her characters, setting and plot. Riverflow is set in a small Shropshire village, Foxover, close to which Bede and Erin, a couple in their thirties, have lived off-grid on a smallholding for many years. Until eighteen months ago they shared Alderleat with Bede’s uncle Joe, until he drowned in the surging river, leaving Bede unable to accept that his death was accidental.
The frictions and rivalries of a rural community are convincingly depicted. Bede and Erin, former activists, clash with local landowner Philip Northcote who’s developing a fracking site. Bede, clever at mechanics and problem-solving, is an idealist, probably on the autism spectrum and at times infuriating to live with; to some villagers he’s known as Eco, a nice demonstration of the ease with which people can pigeonhole and ‘other’ an outlier, avoiding the inconvenience of acknowledging that his views are both valid and necessary. He and Elin are devoted to each other, but with the unavoidable sticking-point that Elin wants children whereas Bede thinks it would be irresponsible to bring a child into this threatened world. Elin, too, tries to steer a calm course through village conflicts while Bede can never curb a sarcastic or angry response when challenged.
Partly through snippets of the journal Joe kept hidden, we’re drawn into the backstory of Bede’s upbringing. Never knowing who his father was, he was brought up by his mother until her death, when her brother Joe took him in. But Joe had secrets of which Bede is unaware and which begin to threaten the self-contained life he and Elin have built at Alderleat. The plot centres on a series of incidents involving Philip Northcote, his widowed mother Marjorie with whom Joe had a close relationship, and attractive newcomer Silvan, Northcote’s gamekeeper, who befriends Bede and Elin. Bede is apparently being framed for acts of minor sabotage – releasing pheasants reared for shooting, scratching the side of Northcote’s Bentley – and then for a far more serious crime. The revelation of who's behind this malice is cleverly constructed, with several clues hidden in plain sight.
What makes Riverflow so appealing is the deft and delicate portrayal of the shifting relationship between Bede and Erin, alongside the details of daily life which are always underpinned by environmental aspirations and what it’s practical to achieve. It’s rare and refreshing to read a novel set in the here and now that has climate issues so firmly at its core.
Riverflow is published by Honno Press.