7/10/14—A REVIEW OF THIS BRIGHT RIVER BY PATRICK SOMERVILLE
Sometimes a novel is interesting because of its story. Sometimes because of its characters. And sometimes because of the author’s writing techniques. I started reading This Bright River by Patrick Somerville expecting to be enticed by the novel’s story. I had read Somerville’s previous novel, The Cradle, a few years ago and liked the story about expectant parents’ search for the mother’s childhood cradle, an effort that brings them much more than a cradle. From the beginning, however, This Bright River is different and much darker.
Somerville opens the novel with an encounter between two unnamed men in a bar. After drinking together for a while, one man invites the other to go with him to his car and get high. The second man agrees and follows the first out onto the street. When they get to the car, the first man pulls something from the glove compartment. “I’m actually going to kill you now,” he says and hits the other man over the head with whatever he has in his hand.
Despite its startling content, the scene is almost all dialogue, an exchange of brief comments culminating with the first man’s pronouncement of his murderous intention. From that jarring scene, the novel jumps to show the main character, Ben Hanson, making his way through O’Hare Airport. Somerville makes no attempt to link the men from the bar with Hanson at that point, but the structure of that first scene illustrates what to me was the most intriguing part of the novel—Somerville’s storytelling techniques.
As Somerville moves into Ben’s point of view and later into the point of view of Lauren Sheehan, the author lets the story unfold through multiple conversations. “I love conversations and books,” Somerville says in an interview that appears at the end of the paperback edition of the novel. “I will read a conversation for seventy pages. . . . so one thing I thought, when I set out to write this book, was that I would be open to having really long conversations.” And indeed, he is.
One of the most intense conversations is between Ben and his older cousin, Wayne. As readers, we learn early in the novel that Wayne died a mysterious death, frozen in the yard of his father’s cabin in northern Michigan. Ben’s curiosity and concern about the death pervade his actions throughout the novel. In this conversation, a flashback that fills a 20-page chapter, Wayne leads Ben through a discussion of anger and revenge, tells him that his parents and Wayne’s parents are basically evil, and admonishes Ben to keep an eye on his sister. Within the conversation are clues to Wayne’s death, but Ben doesn’t recognize them until years later.
Somerville’s conversations stand out because they give the novel a literary bent that suppresses the plot until the end. Ben and Lauren, who returns to Ben’s Wisconsin hometown about the same time he does, are both hoping to heal, he from drug addiction and an arson charge, she from violence she witnessed as a doctor in Africa and from her experience with an emotionally abusive husband. As their relationship slowly develops, Somerville weaves in substantial backstory to reveal dysfunction in both of their families.
When Lauren’s past catches up with her, Somerville gives us a chapter with another unusual storytelling technique. He switches to second person point of view, with Lauren’s tormented ex-husband Will as the second person. I found the switch upsetting, but I think that’s exactly what Somerville intended. Will is an upsetting character, to say the least, obsessed with getting Lauren back and eliminating any obstacle to that quest, including Ben. Somerville’s use of the word “you”brings the reader closer to Will’s troubled thinking than “he”or even “I”ever could.
This Bright River is a literary novel that turns into a thriller. Flowing from extended scenes with two characters talking to intense encounters with mad men (yes, there are more than one), the novel mimics the river of its title. In an early scene, Wayne says, “The Bright River shouldn’t even be called the Bright River, you know? Because that’s not even how rivers work. It should be this one. And then you go up to it the next day, and it’s this one.”
Be ready for a variety of reading experiences in This Bright River. Its storytelling changes around each bend.