“This is a haunting novel which will linger long past the final page” – Broken River by J Robert Lennon

brjrlBroken River is a novel that is attempting to do a lot. One the one hand it’s the story of a strained marriage, just a few minutes away from total collapse. On the other, it’s a tightly wound, though curiously oblique, crime story. On yet another: the novel is a metafictional look at narrative and fate. J Robert Lennon shouldn’t make this work, but the real surprise about Broken River is how well the disparate threads gel.

Karl and Eleanor, a couple on the verge of separation after Karl’s affair has forced them to relocate outside of the city (because, hey, how else can he be trusted to not sleep with other women?), move with their precocious daughter Irina into the former site of a double murder. The only survivor, a young girl who Irina becomes convinced is still living in the titular town. Karl is attempting to rekindle his only recently terminated affair, whilst Eleanor, a struggling novelist becomes convinced that the cancer she has only just survived has returned.

Into this narrative stumble two other characters – the criminals behind the double murder all those years ago, who find themselves ensnared once again in the events they took part in, being drawn closer to the house.

The key component which links the book together is the narrative device. Lennon describes an omniscient Observer, drifting through the book, checking in on characters, leaving them when it becomes bored, and perhaps even twisting the narrative to force them into certain places at certain times. It works surprisingly well, though at times it does threaten to put an emotional barrier between the characters and the reader, another layer of fiction to get through before you get to the story you want to focus on.

Broken River then is about the sins of the past and the ghosts of history bearing down on the characters. The blurb suggests that this book is “Stephen King meets American Beauty” but to draw comparisons with either of those isn’t right. The novel is nowhere near as trite as Alan Ball’s superficial film, and its horror is not based in ghosts and demons but in existential dread, and to that end it works brilliantly.

Any Cop?: On the whole, yes. Broken River does occasionally get caught up in its own cleverness, but it comes out on top. This is a haunting novel which will linger long past the final page.

 

Daniel Carpenter

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