Broken River by J Robert Lennon
The house is unusual. It has a quaint but quirky layout. It sits on the edge of a National Park. It has a history of murder. It also has a presence, an observer of the human condition and a student of itself. The house lies outside of the town. The town is called Broken River.
Karl is a sculptor inclined to the ways of a philandering eccentric. His long-suffering wife, Eleanor, is a moderately successful novelist fast losing patience with her husband’s recurring infidelity. Their twelve-year-old daughter, Irina, is a precocious and intelligent child struggling to find her place in a home where her parents try ineptly to shield her from the trials of grown-ups.
The family have moved from New York to the house outside of Broken River so that Karl and Eleanor might give their marriage one more try away from the temptations of the big city. Irina learns of the double murders that took place there many years before, and becomes fixated on the whereabouts of the young girl, Samantha, daughter to missing and presumed dead parents. It is an obsession that is to have dire consequences for everyone.
Joe and Louis know what happened at the house all those years ago. They were responsible. Joe is a psychopathic fruitcake hell-bent on retrieving drug money that the murdered couple owed his crime boss. Louis has a family now and wants only to forget a sordid episode in his life. But Joe scares him and won’t let go. So it is that Louis finds himself once more dragged back into the orbit of the house.
Samantha ‘Sam’ Fike is staying in Broken River with her laid-back uncle. Her brother, Daniel, has just been released from prison and Sam is determined to see him OK after his incarceration. She needn’t have worried, Daniel has managed to acquire a pot-growing operation. Unfortunately, this brings him to the attention of Joe, whose mind is becoming increasingly unhinged.
Irina is convinced that Sam Fike is the same Samantha who survived the murder of her parents. When Karl employs Sam to look after his daughter, Irina comes to realize that she has been mistaken. But it’s too late. Irina has posted photos of Sam online, claiming that she is the girl that many are searching for. Joe has seen them. Joe’s gaze now seeks out Sam, and Irina is now also in imminent danger.
Meanwhile, Karl has returned to his old ways and has met up again with Rachel Rosen, the voluptuous socialite he was shagging in New York. They hump the arses off one another in Broken River, smoke some pot and then screw some more. Karl likes to shag. He also takes the time to lay some pipe with his wife when she lets him, and considers jumping the bones of the twenty-year-old Sam Fike. Karl really likes to shag.
But Eleanor has pretty much had it with her errant husband. She has enough to deal with. She has beaten two types of cancer already but notices new aches and pains. This time, however, she refuses to entertain the thought that the disease has returned, although the idea plagues her mind when she drops her guard. Eleanor has a lot going on.
Matters come to a head when Joe finally moves to try to find the missing money. His only link to the past is Sam and he is not taking prisoners. Louis finds that moving in Joe’s shadow is a very dangerous place to be, but can he find the courage to do something about it? It all explodes, and violently shakes the small town of Broken River to its foundations.
Broken River is an extremely well-written and plotted novel. It is a thriller noir, and the wintry setting in upstate New York lends itself perfectly to the overall gloomy mood. It is a slice of American life that dispenses with plastic Hollywood depictions. Life can be mundane. It can be tough. Shit happens, even to good people. Broken River manages to capture this reality beautifully.
The character list in this story is not enormous. Time is taken to present each, with the result that they are all well-known and well-rounded. Their life streams inter-twine as fate plays with them. Each life is of interest and nothing is predictable or guaranteed.
One quirk of the story is that of the presence, an entity that watches events from the start and narrates the tale. The house seems to be where the silent spectator begins its existence, before leaving the confines of the building to explore the wider world, coming eventually understand its own omnipotence. It’s merely a clever vehicle for giving character to the third person narration but works very well.
Overall, Broken River is an intelligent, twisting read that reminded Rebel Voice of numerous US movies set within ordinary lives, such as Fargo or American Beauty. It has that lonesome feel to it, that sense of a world of vignettes stitched seamlessly together as people just try to make the best of what they’ve got. It seems that no one can recreate that feeling of determined resignation as well as the writers and film-makers of the United States. Such books and movies in this vein stand in stark contrast to those made by others from the same nation. The plethora of manufactured and commercial offerings that dominate the screens and shelves today pale in comparison to the true art that we are occasionally gifted with. Broken River is a good example of what can be great about north American literature.
Sult scale rating: 7.5 out of 10. This is a measured and cleverly structured story that is perfectly executed. It’s highly recommended by Rebel Voice, and its completion may leave you with a sense of longing, but for what, you may not know.