Haddan, Mass., is a small town split by an old schism: Town versus Gown, with the townsfolk suspicious of staff and students at the prestigious Haddan School.
A dozen years after the Haddan School was built, a public high school was erected in the neighboring town of Hamilton, which meant a five-mile trek to classes on days when the snow was knee-deep and the weather so cold even the badgers kept to their dens. Each time a Haddan boy walked through a storm to the public school his animosity toward the Haddan School grew, a small bump on the skin of ill will ready to rupture at the slightest contact. In this way a hard bitterness was forged, and the spiteful sentiment increased every year, until there might as well have been a fence dividing those who came from the school and the residents of the village. Before long, anyone who dared to cross that line was judged to be either a martyr or a fool.
The novel focuses on three newcomers to Haddan. Carlin Leander, 14 and poor as dirt, has been awarded a swim scholarship. Her classmate Gus (Augustus) Pierce is a recidivist truant and bad boy, possibly also a Goth. Betsy Chase, fiancee of the would-be Head of Classics at the school, has been hired to teach photography. The fourth protagonist, Abel Grey, has lived in Haddan all his life. He's a policeman, as were his father and his grandfather before him. He has a lot to live up to.
The River King is an autumnal novel, with almost all of the action taking place over the course of the first term of the school year. On the day after Hallowe'en, a body is found in the river. By spring, the mystery of that murder has been resolved. Because this is so much more than a murder mystery I don't feel I've given much away here.) There are plenty of ghosts, mostly figurative: Abel's brother who committed suicide, Betsy's parents who were struck by lightning, Annie Hopkins, wife of a former head of the school, whose death when heavily pregnant may have been at her own hand or another's; the body in the river; the friend left behind, the one who couldn't stop wondering what it might be like to see light filtered deep under water, to breathe in water lilies and stones rather than air.
This is a novel full of roses (usually white, occasionally dyed red); of silver fish, in and out of their element -- the river floods, and Carlin sees fish spiralling beside her as she exercises -- and the three stars of Orion's belt; of images repeated and varied like motifs and themes in a symphony. There are secrets that come to light only slowly, and old injustices that are not made right but rather balanced out. The River King is set in the grey areas of morality. Perhaps two wrongs do make a right, or as close to right as is practical. Perhaps injustice doesn't deserve justice.
Haddan is firmly rooted in contemporary small-town America, and Hoffman sketches the characters' relationships with a fine pen, just enough detail to make each person unique, credible, human. There are sub-plots about love, about loneliness, about escape. There are events and observations that seem supernatural (or is this magic realism?) yet without sensationalism. Hoffman's dense prose has a timeless quality, a kind of fairytale lyricism and echoing weight that I'm coming to associate with her prose. This 2001 novel has me keen to read more of her work.