Eve, the protagonist of this beautiful, tender novel, is an artist intoxicated by colors: the way light plays with them, how they work together, how they make her feel, even by their names. “I paint the dark street with brown madder, magenta and translucent Indian yellow painted over white, so it glows,” she muses.
The opening pages of Invisible River find Eve leaving the south of England to study art in London, and it’s in London that she blossoms. She deserves to, after a childhood marred by the mysterious death of her mother and a father incapacitated by grief and alcohol. In London she’ll not only be able to create her wild, vivid paintings but will find friendship with Bianca, a passionate Italian girl, Cecile, a former ballerina, and the happily pregnant Rob. She’ll find love, maybe, with raven-haired Zeb, maker of weird sculptures and curios. Even her persnickety art teachers are a small price to pay for such freedom. The only thing that mars this idyll is the sudden appearance of her father; when Eve left home, his final reason to cling to life left as well. What happens when Eve’s father shows up on her doorstep, sodden and drunk, is the most harrowing part of the book, and leaves a palpable veil of sadness over everything. Eve’s paintings grow muddy, ugly and useless until her friends and fierce love of life—and art—bring her back to herself.
It’s not surprising that Helena McEwen, who studied art in London, has a great eye for detail. I’ve seldom read descriptions of London as a beautiful city—maybe Dickens put paid to that—but in McEwen’s hands it becomes wondrously so. “It is a dark and light day, with sunlight through rain, and lit-up buildings against black clouds,” she writes. “The racing raindrops have rainbows in them.” It’s a joy, in so cynical a time, to find a book that celebrates unapologetic happiness.