What The River Knows by Isabel Ibañez

Published by Hodder & Stoughton

WHAT The River Knows has an intense charm, a pull of Egyptian history blended with magical realism and just the right amount of action.

Set in 1884, the story references British occupation of Egypt and the moral and historical issues of the movement of archaeological artefacts with care and accuracy, intertwining these issues with the tale of a young woman fighting to be taken seriously.

Inez Olivera, from the outside, is a young lady bound for a suitable marriage in polite 1880s Buenos Aires society. However, in the back of her mind, she knows this is not the life she is truly bound for. In childhood, she was encouraged and educated by progressive parents who instilled in her a fascination with Egypt.

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While they spent six months of each year there, however, she was never allowed to visit them, or given details about their work, until the day she receives the letter from her uncle Ricardo that they have gone missing in the desert and are now presumed dead.

Knowing that she cannot let the grief of them come to rest without seeing the land they loved so deeply, and which took them from her, Inez makes the difficult decision to run from her aunt in Argentina’s home and towards uncertainty.

When she arrives, she is not met with quite the warm welcome she had hoped. Her tío Ricardo has no intention of allowing her to stay, but despite the best efforts of his frustratingly handsome young assistant Whitford Hayes, she persists and joins them on their journey along the Nile.

In her begrudgingly appointed position as the talented painter recording their archaeological finds in her sketchbook, Inez gets the sense that secrets are being kept from her. It seems no one is willing to help uncover the mystery of why her parents disappeared but the more she attempts to investigate herself, the more trouble comes her way.

In Ibañez’s world – for the most part like our own – there is widespread knowledge that magic was once a commonplace trade that has now fallen away, but traces of old spells may cling to objects, or even people, who touch them.

After first wearing the mysterious gold ring her father sent to her in his last, wordless correspondence, she has felt a deep connection.

When she discovers that the magic now with a hold on her leads her to all those objects and places touched by the famed final pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra, this unlikely skill becomes vital not only to her uncle’s research, but to her own.

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Inez is a whole and likeable, if stubborn, character. The reader’s frustration burns just as hers does as she is underestimated.

The drops of information she can grasp hold of become precious between stunningly described landscapes and discoveries, breathtaking attraction between herself and Whitford and a more sinister tension as she discovers secrets are kept for a reason, and not everyone can be trusted.