Between Two Rivers is one of those rare novels that takes a simple premise — the lives of the residents in a tower block in downtown Manhattan — and turns it into something truly special, in prose that is, by turn, elegant and shocking, eerie and mesmerising.
We meet a cast of eccentric characters — cancer-ridden industrialist Harry Falcon, retired Luftwaffe pilot Karl Vogel, housemaid Yesenia, Iraqi spice merchant Muhta Saad and his son Abdul (who is studying to become a mortician), actress Angela Crespi, eccentric animal-lover and widower Nora Abernooth and plastic surgeon Theo Tattafruge — and intertwines their stories in a series of beautifully written vignettes. These are linked via alternate chapters told from the point of view of the building’s Romanian concierge, the ever watchful Farro Fescu.
Using this clever plot device, Rinaldi demonstrates the interconnectedness of peoples’ lives and loves. He reveals each character’s personal history, their secrets, their hopes and dreams. Much of this occurs against a backdrop of major events from the Twentieth Century, especially World War II, Vietnam and other wars.
The city of New York also plays a central role. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that Between Two Rivers is a love letter to New York City: its streets, buildings and citizens come alive within its pages so that you can smell the garbage-strewn alleyways, hear the blaring of taxi horns, see the towering skyscrapers touching the sky every time you emerge yourself in the story.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that the terrorist attacks of September 11 play a key role in the book. That said I must say that the final chapters, which are set in the World Trade Centre, caught me completely off guard because the first 377 pages focused on the early 1990s. Rinaldi says he had pretty much finished the story when 9/11 happened but felt that incorporating the event would “bring my characters, through the pressures of that crisis, to new levels of purpose and understanding”. He achieves this with grace and aplomb; the restrained unsentimental prose is incredibly moving and conveys so much of the shock and horror of that terrible day that it may, in fact, be too painful for many to read. It certainly made this hardened reader have a little sob!
All in all, Between Two Rivers is a compelling portrait of a city and its disparate residents. I don’t often use the word masterpiece, but this multi-layered book — part short-story collection, part novel — comes pretty damn close to perfection. I loved every word.