Broken River by J. Robert Lennon: Literary mashup

Cover image I’ve been a fan of J. Robert Lennon’s fiction since reading The Funnies, way back when. I reviewed his last novel, Familiar, in the very early days of this blog and enjoyed it despite its rather messy conclusion. He’s a writer unafraid to take risks, a point that Broken River proves with its mashing together of genres, from gothic to noir, twisted love story to coming-of-age novel, set in upstate New York.

Karl and Eleanor have moved from Brooklyn in a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage, taking their precociously bright twelve-year-old, Irina, with them. The derelict house in Broken River that Karl has had renovated has been empty for twelve years since the unsolved murder of the Gearys which left their five-year-old daughter an orphan. Karl’s had a studio built for his work although little of that gets done. Eleanor is struggling with her novel, worried about her persistent back problems and wondering if her cancer has returned. Irina spends her time on her own novel when not chatting on Cybersleuths about the Geary murders. To spice things up a bit, she’s posted a picture of the young woman she’s convinced herself is Samantha Geary, unwittingly setting in train a series of events that will devastate her family. Meanwhile Joe has contacted his unwilling accessory, Louis, and coerced him into tracking down the dealer who’s stepped onto his Broken River patch. As Karl predictably fails to remain faithful, Eleanor spends much of her writing time on Cybersleuths, unaware that she’s feeding her daughter information. A web of coincidence and misunderstandings finally unravels watched with interest by the Observer who views the motivations, actions and behaviour of the rest of the characters with increasing interest and amazement.

There’s much to enjoy here. The family thread and its noir counterpart are absorbing and entertaining, their many coincidences deftly handled cleverly bringing them together. Lennon can be very funny at times – both Irina’s precocity and Louis’ increasing horror at Joe’s shenanigans are amusing, as is Eleanor’s heartfelt exchange with her agent on delivering something other than her customary chick lit. Irina is a particularly endearing character, caught between a philandering stoner of a father and an increasingly distracted mother. What didn’t work for me was the role of ‘the Observer’ who becomes all-seeing and all-knowing if increasingly puzzled at human irrationality. I’m not entirely sure of its point although at times it seemed almost to be a description of the writing process. That said, the Observer’s sections are short and infrequent, their slightly jarring effect compensated for by the rest of the novel. Not an unalloyed success, then, but it won’t stop me reading Lennon’s next novel.

9 thoughts on “Broken River by J. Robert Lennon: Literary mashup”

  1. Where do you find such unusual and little-known books? This sounds rather too enticing for my own good, as it’s the last thing I need at the moment, with so many books in my reading queue…

    1. It’s the old bookseller/magazine editor in me! Always on the look out for something a bit different. I don’t want to twist your arm but I’d love to know what you think of ‘the Observer’ should you read it.

    1. Me, too. In this case her precocity partly stems from being very bright, partly from having a father incapable of looking after her while his partner was ill which sets her up nicely for a sympathetic audience.

  2. Interesting review. I remember reading a few reviews of Familiar a while ago and thinking it would be a book I would enjoy but, like so many books I think I would enjoy, I didn’t manage to get around to it (though at least I didn’t buy it and put it on a shelf). Thank you for the reminder. I’m not sure that this book is the one I would read, but I’ll put Familiar back on my list and hopefully will get around to it before too long.

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