J. Robert Lennon’s Broken River is really two books. On the surface it’s a competent thriller about a group of people unknowingly slogging through the wake of a gruesome murder. But beneath that there’s a second narrative, a darkly humorous saga about a family on the verge of disintegration, each of them struggling against their worst impulses. It is the kind of book that could easily skew into tropish thriller territory—which I’m convinced wouldn’t actually be so bad with Lennon at the helm. But instead, it flirts with the genre just enough to pull us in so that it can offer something far more memorable and gratifying.
In 2005, a husband and wife are brutally murdered outside their home in Broken River, New York, a sleepy wooded community whose character has been shaped by a state prison located in town—there’s a prison museum, prison-themed restaurants, etc. The couple’s daughter, barely old enough to comprehend what has happened, manages to escape. Fast forward twelve years, during which the house—its own sort of character—is inhabited by a succession of drug addicts, homeless people, and teenage partygoers, to the present when the place is purchased by a family from New York City interested in the change of pace a town like Broken River might offer. There’s Eleanor, a renowned chick-lit novelist who, having survived breast cancer once, fears that it may have returned. And there’s her husband, Karl, a stoner artist with a weakness for women who aren’t his wife. Then there’s Irina, the couple’s twelve-year-old daughter, whose fanciful interior life leads her into an investigation of the murders that took place outside her new home more than a decade earlier.
While Karl and Eleanor struggle to reclaim some sense of stability, both in terms of their relationship and their respective careers, Irina undertakes a mission to locate the daughter of the murdered couple. As the most self-aware of all the characters, Irina is the heart of the book, the moral center: as her parents find not-so-new ways to bungle their lives, our attention is consistently drawn back to her and her quest for normalcy. And what she finds during her investigation isn’t nearly as gripping as the investigation itself.
Her parents are depicted with the same degree of tragicomic realism and compassion, though in the end they aren’t quite as likeable as Irina, particularly Karl. A boy in a man’s body frantically trying to salvage his raucous youth through infidelity and drugs, he views the family’s move from the city as a sort of challenge to his insistence on self-sabotage:
[H]e has discovered that it’s no big deal to buy whatever obscure foreign eats he likes and have them delivered to his studio door. He also thinks he’s found a weed connection, just in time for the consummation of his trifecta of vice: he’s going to bone Rachel. She’s here. In Broken River. She’s staying at the Upstate, an old hotel in the middle of town. … He kind of can’t believe his audacity, his blatant flouting of the very simple rules set forth in the plan to rehabilitate his marriage, his logistical acumen in the pursuit of the things he needs to feel alive. He is a masterful deceiver, a scoundrel, and he is so, so excited right now.
If there’s a weakness to the novel, it’s Karl, who rings a little too closely to caricature, his dialogue studded with ums and uhs. However, there’s never a sense that the author has lost control of his cast. And that’s really the key word here, control: Lennon’s superb grasp of character ensures that even those moments of contrivance are ultimately leveled out by a riveting developmental arc.
Threaded throughout all three characters’ stories is a burgeoning narrative consciousness referred to simply as the Observer. Ostensibly, it is the personification of the third-person point of view, a ghostly presence whose stoically naïve perspective offers a kind of counterbalance to the other characters’ neuroses. It is embodied by some of the most artful prose in the book:
But then what is the Observer itself? What is its objective? … Already its years inside the abandoned house seem inconceivably dull: how could it have remained there, a state of mute forbearance, when it might have moved, followed, investigated? Suddenly the Observer is aware, as it never was before, of the existence, the scope, of time and space; it sees itself as an entity within a frame of reference. It is a thing that exists: and if one thing can exist then other things, perhaps, cannot. Did the Observer ever not exist? Did it begin to exist, or has it always existed?
Through this voice, we are transported from one point of view to the next with voyeuristic expediency. Beyond this, however, it isn’t entirely clear what the advantages of such a perspective are: the Observer doesn’t offer any more information about the characters than traditional third person, nor does it exert much influence on the events of the story. It just . . . observes.
Although maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. After all, what it’s observing is a tremendously engaging tale about family, violence, and the past’s damning effects upon us. Broken River is an even mix of thriller and satire told to us by an author who cares for his characters deeply and earnestly, and wants us to care as well, even as we are watching them sabotage themselves—perhaps even because they are sabotaging themselves. That, anyway, seems to be when we are at our most story-worthy, when we are acting against our best interests, making trouble for ourselves. There’s a vulnerability to the book that speaks to our inclination toward disaster, and that’s what elevates it beyond another cut-and-paste mystery novel. It is an immensely satisfying read, one that I suspect I will be revisiting again.
About the Reviewer
Jeremy Griffin is the author of the short fiction collection A Last Resort for Desperate People, from SFASU Press. His work has appeared in such journals as the Indiana Review, the Iowa Review, and Shenandoah. He is currently the 2017 Prose Fellow for the South Carolina Arts Commission, and he teaches at Coastal Carolina University, where he is the fiction editor for Waccamaw: a Journal of Contemporary Literature.