The Blurb (from Goodreads):
‘Look first. Reach second. Vanish third.’
London, 1825: Eglantine has always had an eye for the shine. Born the same day as the young princess destined to be queen, Eglantine has an altogether different path ahead of her, strewn with the glittering waste of her father’s ambitions. Her mysteriously prosperous father, Mr Amberline Stark, is a man of great expectations. He coaxes her to follow in his footsteps, making picking pockets a delightful parlour game which they play in their fine house by the Thames. Eglantine’s life before her arrival at the house remains a mystery, her memories wrapped up in a small doll she keeps close to her, and with it the fragmentary recollections of her mother.
It is only when Amberline is caught and transported as a thief to the penal colony of Australia, that Eglantine has to grow up and fend for herself using her only skill. Reluctantly, the thief’s daughter becomes a thief, until a chance meeting gives her a window on a new way of being, and the opportunity to strike out into a new and untarnished world. But will the weight of her father’s choices make her a prisoner in the house at the side of the Thames?
Birth and death, love and sadness, love knots and cut ties, quicksilver and shine, old worlds and new beginnings, Sandra Leigh Price weaves another gritty and beguiling story that will enchant and delight readers.
The story begins with the birth of a baby in a river. The mother is a Romany girl named Patrin, and she goes to the water for release from her pain. ‘The iron-flood of my blood went out of me like a road for my child’s tiny feet to follow … I was outside the limits of time, pain was my minutes and hours, my before, my after.’ Her daughter Eglantine is born on the 24th May 1819, the same day as the little girl who would one day become Queen Victoria. The fates of these two little girls – one a Gypsy girl trained by her father to steal, the other a princess sequestered inside high palace walls – touch in subtle and mysterious ways over the course of their lives.
The next chapter is told from the point of view of Eglantine as a six-year-old child. There is no mention of her mother Patrin and Eglantine has no memory of her. Instead, she has a little wooden doll called Miss Poppet. Eglantine lives with her father in a grand house on the Thames. She has a stepmother called Ada and is served by a housekeeper called Makepeace. The absence of her mother is as constant as the roar of the river.
The mystery of what happened to Patrin becomes the driving force of the narrative. The events that led to her disappearance are entwined with the story of Eglantine growing up, being taught to steal by her charming but self-absorbed father, and learning to fend for herself after he is transported to Sydney. In time, Eglantine herself will find her way to the colony on the other side of the world, following the hope of love.
The pace of The River Sings is slow and deep, the writing strong and poetic, the sense of place wonderfully realised. I was reminded of two novels I really love. The first is The Secret River by Kate Grenville, though most of Sandra Leigh Price’s novel is set in England before the journey to Australia, unlike Kate Grenville’s which moves away from the Mother Country much earlier. The other is Stone Cradle by Louise Doughty, which explores three generations of a Romany family in England. Like these novels, The River Sings illuminates a way of life that has been lost, and is a profoundly moving meditation on love, loss, betrayal and redemption.