REVIEW by Chris Moss

NWR Issue r33


by Alison Layland

Cover of Riverflow by Alison Layland published by Honno

A fracking project, an expanding pheasant shoot, a ruthless landowner and the perennial risk of destructive flooding: Alison Layland’s second novel for Honno Welsh Women’s Press ticks several of the boxes that fit it nicely into the eco-thriller genre. Her prose ripples with climate-crisis imagery, as an otherwise idyllic location – the Welsh/English borders, beside the banks of the mighty Severn – faces a season of abnormal rains. But the black clouds turn out to be merely outward expressions of the heavy emotional weather that’s influencing the inner lives of an extended group of friends and associates, and is in danger of destroying a small rural community.

The story revolves mainly around three lives: in the foreground are ‘elfin’ but practical Elin Sherwell and her husband, Bede, a moody born-again environmentalist (nicknamed Eco by one friend, Action Man by another) who wears his fat-free heart on his sleeve and a Green Man tattoo across his shoulders. There’s also Joe, Bede’s uncle, who has been helping out at their off-grid home at a place called Alderleat for the last fifteen years. Joe’s sudden death by drowning opens the novel, the principal action of which unfolds eighteen months later – during a very soggy spring.

Around these three move many satellites – from like-minded Fran, Elin’s best friend, and her husband, Jeff, portrayed as the non-green ‘normal’ guy – to the dastardly Philip Northcote, the local capitalist, Bentley-driver and pro-fracking developer, who employs a young man named Silvan (yes, the novel is rather like attending a Totnes organic craft fair) – with whom Bede has a number of awkward, even tense, encounters. Layland captures the friendliness and the nosiness of close-knit communities, and the way people cannot avoid communication or, at times, confrontation. The scenes in the pub, particularly, and around the village have the note of truth and, perhaps, of lived experience.

While the environmental issues that form the backdrop to the novel are of intrinsic interest as well as very timely, however, some of the virtue-signalling feels a tad laboured. On occasion, we suspect the author’s viewpoint is creeping in rather than that of her characters. Also, Bede’s eschatological preachiness veers on caricature in a few scenes; his private observations when Silvan chooses a foreign ale over a local brew, just come over as crude. Readers can make up their own mind. And, do we need to know that the 4x4 driven by one Carole Denman is of an ‘excessive size’ or that she lives within walking distance of the riverside pub where it’s parked? Riverflow is probably the first fictional work I’ve come across to feature the words ‘upcycling’, ‘ecocide’ and ‘direct action’, neatly interspersed by folk music and spliffs. If you like your entertainment to be right-on, you’ll love it.

However, woven into all the social-cum-ideological to-ing and fro-ing is a deeply rooted family drama that hints at a hidden, shadowy side to the lives of the characters, linking them to one another in a manner that presents problems that can’t be solved by agreeing to differ or having the occasional spat. As the present-day action moves forward, we are privy to Joe’s diary, which gives a fragmentary account of both a series of protests aimed at protecting a local woodland, and of his own past efforts to rebuild his life following a number of setbacks. The author deftly works these flashbacks into the ongoing drama, so that rather than a case of plot versus subplot, we have two intrigues gradually tying themselves into an increasingly taut knot, until something has got to give. Blood, as ever, flows thicker and more tumultuously than even the rushing rain or bursting river of this unseasonable spring.

A cleaner, closer edit might have helped this complex novel flow more smoothly [especially towards the end as pace surpasses all], and the eco-related themes might have been spliced in more subtly. But Layland is a very capable craftswoman and the creation of her credible – and believably irritating – characters, the thoughtful rendering of landscape and weather, and her decision to address some of the keenest issues of our times, all deserve praise. A thriller completely free of procedural/moody detective formulae, and which also avoids the psychopath clichés of domestic noir, makes for a very engaging and enjoyable read – and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of Wales’ many able television producers isn’t already considering an option for the screenplay.

Chris Moss is a travel writer and journalist.

Buy this book at


previous review: The Levels
next review: The BBC National Short Story Award 2019


A brief note on copyright:all authors have given permission for their work to appear online on New Welsh Review's website. Copyright remains with the author. If you wish to reproduce part or all of any article then the permission of the author must be sought, and the author and New Welsh Review credited accordingly.

Contact us:Registered Office PO Box 170, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, SY23 1WZ - Telephone 00 (44) 1970 628410
© New Welsh Review Ltd, all rights reserved - Registered in England and Wales - Registered number: 02493828
Website design: mach2media and mopublications      Website development: Technoleg Taliesin Cyf.