Every home has its secrets. Every tired old shell of a building has seen its fair share of drama and disaster. Some people believe ghosts haunt buildings – sitting around in their old abodes lost and forlorn for eternity. Some more literary minded people see the ghostly in buildings – the continued popularity of psychogeographic works illustrates the attraction of delving into the history and aura of the built environment. Some trace themselves over the landscape like fingers over braille. Site specific literature is certainly becoming a literary genre in its own right (here, I unashamedly recommend a quick google of the fantastic Influx Press for examples of such works) and Broken River by J.Robert Lennon manages to experiment in a similar way – highlighting a building as the driver of his story. The house at Broken River is the epicentre of this tale, sometimes crooked, sometimes with fresh, new carpets you can nearly smell, but always more like a character than a setting. This big country house, recently renovated, is what the story swims around, that is a story of coincidence, error and misfortune.
This, this book is not one thing or the other: it is a family drama, a haunted house story, a crime drama with a crescending thriller-like finale. It plays with tension – it flowing and reversing at will – and sets the narrator free to literally fly across the landscape, spying on its characters.
This is the story of a small family that suffering under the pressures of modern city life. Exhausted and fractured they move to the countryside to an old, beaten house that is a cheap buy due to its less than alluring history. The house is in upstate New York, in a small town called Broken River. Years before the family move in it was the abode of another small family that are brutally murdered. (So far so Nordic Noir.) They go down there drive, are driven off the road where the two parents are murdered in front of a little girl that runs off into the woods. This strange legacy hangs over the house and the story. (Hello haunted house story) Years later, after the house has decayed and become the preserve of waifs and strays, Karl a sculptor from New York City buys the house, and has it repaired for him and his family. The plot then follows the trials and tribulations of their private lives (enter Franzen) and also investigates the history of the house coming back to haunt the new family. The young girl, Irina, is inquisitive and creative and fascinated by the history of the house that becomes accessible to her via the internet. She obsesses about the little girl, Sam, who ran away from the murderers and identify her, fixating on a young woman who returns to the area and is of corresponding age. Irina then posts Sam’s image on the internet saying she has found the missing witness to the murders and things long dead start springing back to life.
This is an intriguing story, drifting between genres, and experimenting with the perspective and pace of the narration. Sometimes the effect is uneasy. The story starts with drama and suspense – a tense, dark night full of emerging horror – then eases considerably for a good portion of the text – slowly milling around the seemingly innocuous lives of our protagonists. The writing is clear and flows easily without trickery or flamboyance. Personally, I enjoy the family drama elements of the book more than the murder mystery-esque elements. The characters are well-rounded, full of flaws and hypocrisies, but I wonder if those expecting a thrill after the first few pages might be disappointed. What carries the text on is the relationship struggles of Karl and Eleanor, and the digressions of a young girl. Karl and Eleanor are most entertaining in my view: both creative, but questioning their own talents; both equally enthralled and bored with one-another; both still slightly surprised to have the responsibility of parenting a child. The book doesn’t shy away from exploring the lusts of the respective characters, especially Karl who struggles to remain monogamous even though the move to the countryside was in fact an attempt at self- restraint, but with little success.
One could get carried away just with these two lost souls and their necessarily-mature daughter, but every so often, up pops a mystery ‘observer’. This observer – fluid, indistinct – is watching the characters. It is not bound by time, it is not bound to one place, it is not one thing or another. It watches and carries the reader on to see what happens next. It might be a victim of the murders, it might be a spirit or it might be purely the illustration of the gaze of the reader. I am sitting on the fence on the effectiveness of this element of the text: it certain mixes things up a bit, bringing an element of the supernatural on to the scene, making the reader wonder if there might be some big ghostly reveal, but then again, it’s theistic omnipresence is also a little jarring against the everyday lives of our characters. It ruminates on human nature a lot, considering the strangeness of their condition, getting philosophical in its non-material state. I saw the observer as popping in and out of view, directing the reader to view things through its ‘eyes’, but not as the exclusive perspective. The narration flows on without it and at times I forgot about its presence until it announced itself again. It is a play on the nature of narration, the writer sometimes popping up and announcing itself -its power and its whims on show for the reader to see – but it just as easily disintegrates and the text falls back into the not so transgressive 3rd person narration. It, to me, is just one element of a mash-up of authorly pursuits that this novel holds and only succeeds in certain instances, for example, the description of the house falling into disrepair around it is interesting. The Observer witnesses the rotting and disintegration and relays it like footage sped up – the food the first family left rots down into dust, the windows are broken then boarded then broken again. Other times it intrudes in narrative that doesnèt seem to need it.
But this is a tale that doesn’t stick to the rule book, the crescendo is there, but not the big unveiling. There’s a spectre, but no ghost. There’s murder, but no motive. This novel doesn’t tie up all the loose ends like a beach novel would, there is no, ‘and from then on…’ moment, for essentially, and most agreeably in my opinion, the novel tells that things happen despite our plans, we are mainly just witnesses to the madness and the normality that goes on around us.
J. Robert Lennon is the author of eight novels. His fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Granta, Harper’s Magazine, the New Yorker and the LRB. He lives in upstate New York.
Broken River was published by published by Serpent’s Tail on 1st June 2017.
To discover more about Serpent’s Tail click here…
Review by Jessica Gregory
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