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The River Flows On by Maggie Craig

I'm sometimes a little ambivalent about novels set in the Depression era of English history. Still, I picked this one up very cheaply, as the cover and blurb on the back sounded interesting. I hoped it wouldn't be too sordid; some books set in this period focus so much on poverty and abuse that I find them highly disturbing, and that's not particularly useful since there's nothing that can be done about the past!

The River Flows On by Maggie Craig

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Fairhead
Reviewed by Sue Fairhead
Summary: An elderly lady looks back at the Depression and the story of her family's struggles make an enchanting story as they're balanced by humour and love. Highly recommended by Bookbag!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 406 Date: January 1999
Publisher: Headline Publishing Group
ISBN: 978-0747258643

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But Maggie Craig, an author I haven't read before, gets just the right balance, in my view. This novel is primarily character-based, and while the families concerned are struggling in many ways, there's plenty of love and humour amongst them.

The novel opens with 86-year-old 'Grandma Kate' watching a liner being brought into anchor, with her great-grandson Michael. She talks to him about the way his great-uncles and great-grandfather were involved in the building of such great ships, and this provides the impetus for the rest of the novel, which is a huge flashback to Kate's earlier life. She is 14 at the start, a bright and artistic teenager who longs to go to art college, but her sometimes harsh mother wants her to leave school and get a job to help the family finances.

Since Kate's father's work is specialist, and he's often out of work, she realises that it would make sense for her to find a job. Much of the book is a struggle between practicalities and dreams in Kate's mind, as she longs to reach out of the poverty trap, yet cannot leave behind those whom she cares for deeply.

The novel covers Kate's growing up, her marriage, and - almost as an epilogue - the start of World War II. It took me a little while to get into it; sometimes I feel mildly irritated with books that open with someone elderly and then take us back to their childhood, but I soon realised that it was worth reading more than just the final chapter which is back in Kate's elderly years! After a couple of days of reading just a chapter at a time, I found myself getting involved in Kate as a person, sometimes empathising with her confusing emotions, sometimes rooting for her to solve her problems. Most of the characters are well-rounded and believable, to the extent that I had tears in my eyes in a couple of particularly moving scenes.

Once I had reached the stage of being immersed in the book, I could hardly put it down and finished the last 350 pages (out of about 400) in just two days. Definitely recommended.

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