Broken River

Written by J. Robert Lennon

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

Broken River
RRP: Serpent’s Tail
Released: June 01, 2017

Four disparate families are involved in this story; they are connected by a figure called Joe, and overseen by a presence that could be a nascent god (or possibly the author) called the Observer who records and simplifies actions, people, meaning. He – it, at first startling, even resented, becomes an endearing feature, keeping the reader on an even keel. Which is helpful, for the suspense is acute, involving as it does, young girls and bad men.

Concerning the families, at the start the first is fleeing from their remote house in upstate New York only to be caught, tortured and shot. The five-year-old daughter goes missing, the killers are never apprehended.

Twelve years later a second family arrives, to strip and restore the same vandalized house: Karl, avant-garde sculptor and philanderer, Eleanor, his novelist wife, and 12-year-old Irina: loved and loving, a precocious writer herself and equally at home with the internet. In no time she has researched the old murder and has started to chat – on-line and anonymously – with other aficionados of the case. In fact she becomes so obsessed with the fate of the missing child survivor that she projects its grown image on Sam, a teenager she meets in town.

Sam is another kind of survivor, having taken over her brother’s cannabis business while he serves a stretch in the local jail. She is street-wise, amoral, canny, but amused by Irina, curious and happy to go along with the girl’s fantasy, coolly accepting Karl’s request that she babysit his daughter leaving him free to get stoned in his studio. Eleanor, mother and wife, knowing herself dying of cancer, has left the woods for New York, ostensibly to sell her latest novel to her agent but in reality to punish her husband who, not content with cannabis, is indulging in his latest affair.

The last family centres on Louis: a most reluctant associate of the terrifying Joe. This pair have been intermittently present since the start, the Observer, god-like, observing their interaction like an entomologist studying two insects, but seeming to sheer away from Joe on his own, concentrating rather on Louis:  in his carpet factory, with his family where his anorexic wife and pubescent daughter are glued to a computer, fascinated by ghoulish details of that old murder in the house in the woods. Now by way of that dangerous chat room this has been identified along with its new occupants and their relationship with Sam, a girl said to be the survivor of that murder. Everything, everyone is converging.

Basically this is a simple plot: a double murder, revival of interest in the cold case, a witness who can identify the killers. All done before, but Lennon has delved into the soul of every character, right down to those who figure only as foils: Eleanor’s smug agent, Karl’s mistress – an unlikely Mary Magdalene; Irina’s mentor: the louche guitar man. And the main participants are exquisitely portrayed, not least the nightmare figure of Joe. Story lines advance plausibly towards ends which, on reflection, were obvious, but I was so absorbed that I never made a note and when I did come up for air it was with the conviction that Broken River is a brilliant work and so far the most perceptive novel of the year.

Read the first chapter here

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