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the Complete Review
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Iain Sinclair

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To purchase Downriver

Title: Downriver
Author: Iain Sinclair
Genre: Novel
Written: 1991
Length: 446 pages
Availability: Downriver - US
Downriver - UK
Downriver - Canada
  • or, The Vessels of Wrath - A Narrative in Twelve Tales
  • Awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize
  • Awarded the Encore Award (awarded for best second novel)
  • In Liquid City (see our review) Sinclair called the American edition "the best looking edition of any of my commercially published books". However, he also notes that after publication: "It sank without a trace."

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Our Assessment:

A- : challenging, but very well-written panoramic account of Thatcherite Britain

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 20/6/1993 Christopher Ricks
The Hudson Review . Spring/1994 Tom Wilhelmus
New Statesman & Society A+ 8/3/1991 Michael Moorcock
The NY Times Book Rev. C+ 15/8/1993 Howard Coale
The Spectator A 16/3/1991 Peter Vansittart
TLS . 5/4/1991 Eric Korn
The Washington Post . 29/8/1993 Gregory Feeley

  Review Consensus:

  Complex -- but diverging opinions on whether a brilliant realist-fantasia or misguided effort in obscurantism.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Each story (is) dense with pathways, interweaving narratives, hundreds of characters, and references upon connections upon allusions. The book is a tremendous pillar of words, not all of them making direct sense and not trying to." - Howard Coale, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(Sinclair's) snarling compendium of obscure lives and dubious livelihoods, rotting neighbourhoods and neighbours, hypocrisy, dreams, endurance, is recommended to complacent politicians and all whose London is blocked by gentility. It will repel devotees of Margaret Thatcher and Somerset Maugham, and those who expect a novel, unlike other arts, to reveal all at a single examination." - Peter Vansittart, The Spectator

  • "Downriver's intensity recalls the best and most humane tradition of a 19th-century radicalism, inevitably echoing the angry passion of Blake or Shelley. It speaks for the alienated, the underdog, the dispossessed, the eccentric, the bewildered idealist." - Michael Moorcock, New Statesman & Society

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Wordsmith and booklover Iain Sinclair describes himself in the American introduction to Downriver as a "compulsive hunter of margins." "I wanted to unwind congeries of narrative in the form of a novel," he explains, "to travel backwards down a changed and changing river." The river is the Thames, the time nominally the late-1980's (Sinclair's sweep of history is, however, far more wide-reaching).
       Sinclair is the most London-centered of modern English novelists, and he knows the city inside out. Writing during the height of Margaret Thatcher's reign, he finds a wealth of material along the banks of the Thames, easy pickings for his critical eye. His riverside view, however, though spectacular, is decidedly darker -- both grungier and more severe -- than the familiar waterway expectations.
       The twelve sections of the book each have a photograph as cover piece, described in some detail in the first section. They are, we are told, Joblard's "Heart of Darkness", A Narrative in Twelve Postcards. Pictures out of colonial Africa, they nevertheless function as appropriate illustrations for Sinclair's varied contemporary tales. Sinclair's docklands London is also in the heart of darkness, an often bleak vision of a disenfranchised society that is both literally and figuratively on the periphery and now finds itself and its lifestyle and heritage under attack from capitalist-imperialist forces.
       The tales are interconnected, while also standing to some extent on their own. The author figures in some of the episodes, and fact and fiction blur throughout. Peopled by figures as diverse as physicist Stephen Hawking and Lewis Carroll's Alice, Sinclair invokes such authorities to show his London as hub of the world. One of Sinclair's obsessions -- Jack the Ripper -- naturally finds his way in as well. Booksellers and a film crew, trying to capture the riverside, also appear, and there are asides such as a conversation about the writer Nicholas Moore.
       The change, forced on the area by Thatcherite policy, weighs heavily on the locals and the book's characters, Maggie the one demon they all flail at in an effort to exorcise her.
       Sinclair's vision is dark, even somber. There is some humour, but little gaiety. A broad river-rush of allusion and language carries the reader along, though what courses underneath is, like the Thames, often rank, grim, and unappealing.
       Sinclair is a stylist, his writing accomplished but dense and generally uncompromising. He takes the reader to interesting places, but not every reader will enjoy the voyage. Downriver is a mightily impressive book, but not necessarily approachable. Sinclair's language can sweep one away, but at over 400 pages it is a long and sometimes tortuous ride. The specifically English allusiveness, as well as the London locale and the (now) dated political concerns might also pose difficulties to readers.

       We do recommend the book, with the strong warning that readers should know what they are getting themselves into. It is a very good book, but it is certainly not everyone's cuppa.

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Downriver: Iain Sinclair: Other books by Iain Sinclair under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       London author Iain Sinclair has written several collections of poetry, as well as a number of novels and documentary works.

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© 1999-2010 the complete review

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