Broken River, J. Robert Lennon’s eighth novel and tenth book, starts with a double murder. Around one in the morning, a nameless family—a man, a woman, their one child—attempt to flee their home. They get in their car and instead of getting away, crash into a tree. The parents are then shot and killed. Nobody is certain what happened to the child, other than that they survived.
12 years later, another family of three moves in to the house, and though it has been renovated multiple times, the legacy of the murders remains. Irina, the 12-year-old girl at the heart of the book, overhears some of the men doing work on the house discussing it. Separately, her mother, Eleanor, and her father, Karl, are aware of it, too, though they don’t know their daughter knows. Separately, Irina and Eleanor both begin digging up information on the crime—which was never solved—on the internet. Karl is too busy carrying out an affair to care much either way. They have moved from Brooklyn to upstate New York for specifically this reason, to stop his messing around and hopefully save their marriage.
There is also a character referred to as The Observer, a bodyless, semi-conscious entity that narrates a significant number of chapters, slowly learning how to move through space and time. This is a unique element, executed extremely well. Lennon’s prose in these sections is dispassionate but incredibly thoughtful. This passage comes after The Observer sees an encounter between strangers in a coffee shop.
The Observer is interested in these wordless events that span mere seconds. Serendipitous encounters, subtle reactions, inscrutable social cues that alter the course of events, nudging the plot—one plot out of an infinitude—this way or that.
What Lennon does here, and throughout the book with The Observer, is tighten the reader’s focus. It’s an elegant and, in some sense, passive way of going about directing and redirecting attention, but most of all it’s incredibly effective. On top of that, The Observer is a compelling character in their own right, growing and changing as any other character might.
Things aren’t quite as quaint for the characters with bodies. Irina believes she has identified the mysterious child, though the woman she meets is too old for that to be true. Because of her suspicions and general isolation—she is homeschooled and knows nobody her age—she establishes a relationship with the now-grown child, Sam, who also has chapters from her point of view. The way Sam gets tangled up with her brother’s drugs, which includes selling weed to Karl, is a major part of how the story comes together.
There is one other point of view character: Louis. A hapless criminal who thought he had left that part of his life behind him until Joe, a man with whom he worked 12 or so years before, comes knocking on his door. Lennon wraps all of these characters up with one another, and for the most part it’s successful, but at times it can feel thin.
The book is technically a psychological thriller, but to call it that seems reductive. If there was no murder or mystery, the intricacies of the family drama could sustain a novel on their own, and if the family dynamic were simpler, the force of the plot, as intricate and well-crafted as any book this year, would keep readers humming along.
Lennon has a particular facility with his characters, aided by the novel’s roving perspectives. The aforementioned beating heart of the book is Irina, whose precociousness could seem clichéd were its payoff not so wonderful. When they arrive in the new house, she is working on her first novel, and its subject matter is a perfect mix of imaginative and earnest.
[It’s] about a boy who gets on the wrong subway train and ends up in a previously unknown sixth borough of New York City where women wear gigantic dresses with bustles that prevent them from ever getting closer than six feet from one another, and men who are brothers or close friends or who started business together would allow their long mustaches to become to intertwine, making them physically inseparable…the most distinguished job you can have is a street magician.
There is something really life-affirming about a passage like this, something so filled with energy and excitement, and Lennon strikes an impossible balance that makes this feeling available in concert with the feeling that nothing good can come from this family being in this house, and that only ten pages earlier, a family was being murdered.
It’s a testament to Lennon’s control that this is possible, and an indication of what makes this a special book, what sets it apart from mainstream thrillers like The Girl on the Train. Those books are fun, but there is a pervasive darkness in many because it would be hard to get back if the book veered away from the ominous. Lennon, partially due to how he structures Broken River, does not have this problem, allowing the tone’s lightness and darkness to slide along a spectrum.
On the other hand, he finds a way to separate himself from more plot-oriented literary books, such as Fiona Maazel’s (very, very good) A Little More Human because his story is just more thrilling. The last 50 pages of Broken River are an absolute marvel. It’s a genuine thriller that’s genuinely literary. And, most importantly, genuinely good.
Broken River by J. Robert Lennon
Published May 16, 2017
J. Robert Lennon is the author of eight novels and two story collections. His fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, Harper’s Magazine, Playboy, and The New Yorker. He lives in Ithaca, New York, where he teaches writing at Cornell University.
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Bradley Babendir is a fiction writer and critic. His work has been published by The Washington Post, NPR, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Boston.