Thoughts about Broken River (J. Robert Lennon)

Broken River: A NovelBroken River: A Novel by J. Robert Lennon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the 2009 comedy-drama City Island, the story revolves around situations that arise from the secrets a family keeps from one another. The comedy part of this drama comes forward when the film audience sees members of the Rizzo family moving in circles to hide the same secret — Joyce hides her smoking by doing it in her car, Vince smokes with his head through a cupola in the roof of the family home, and daughter Vivian goes to great lengths to hide her suspension from the university for, of course, smoking (something a little more potent than Virginia tobacco). When the film approaches its climax after approximately 90 minutes, the family members stop lying to one another, let their devotion come to the surface, and the family extends to include additional characters in its fold, and all grow closer as a result of supplanting truth for lies.

City Island and Broken River have nothing in common with one another, save the fact that they chronicle families whose members lie to each other. That, and the fact that if this were an exercise in Reader Response theory (which, I suppose, it is in a rather haphazard manner), one invoked the other in this reader’s mind. The film is a comedy in the truest sense, in which the characters triumph over unhappy circumstances as a means to positive change. The novel, not so much. As both a mystery and a psychological thriller, Broken River delivers the best that both genres have to offer, and as good literature should, it delivers in a fresh and innovative way.

The family of Karl, Eleanor, and 12-year-old Irina moves into a renovated house where over a decade earlier, two brutal murders occurred. The murderers were never apprehended. Perfect setting for a mystery. Add to this a family with secrets, each telling lies to the other (lies that set sinister consequences in motion), and you have a psychological thriller. Arching over all of this, add a mysterious “Observer,” who sees all but is incapable of agency. (Critics and graduate students will, I have no doubt, write theses about this “Observer” — in my reading, the Observer is quite simply us, the Readers. We see the consequences of every action but are incapable of changing the narrative.)

In City Island each lie leads the family nearer to the dramatic climax in which all is resolved. As the story climbs to this point, even the most unconventional character traits are embraced with acceptance and compassion. Young son Vinnie’s sexual fetish (Feederism) is accepted by his neighbor as a sign of his generous and nurturing spirit, reinforced when Vinnie actually establishes a healthy relationship with a plump classmate. In contrast, the dramatic climax in Broken River, while not a tragedy in the traditional sense, builds on a shaky foundation of lies and secrets that leads to a series of tragic events. Karl’s compulsions nearly destroy his family, Eleanor’s anger and frustration turned inward nearly kill her, and Irina’s innocent obsession with the decade-old murder nudges the killers back into deranged and deadly action against characters with only the most tenuous connections to the house.

Through the Observer, the reader knows what the characters cannot, and like a train gathering breakneck speed, the action moves toward a blood-chilling and surprising conclusion as all of the tracks converge. A spectacular thriller, written on multiple levels and filled with wry observations of human nature and human frailty.

Thank you, Graywolf Press, for the Advance Reader copy!

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