Violence leaves a stain that soaks into the fibers of a civilization, a locale, even a family. Author J. Robert Lennon explores this stain’s significance in Broken River, a darkly cinematic novel that ponders both violence’s lasting implications and the past’s enduring consequences.
In the book, Broken River is a small town where nothing good happens. It hides some grisly skeletons, most notably a double murder that occurred 12 years ago in the woods outside of a certain house. The crime was never solved, and the lone survivor, the murdered couple’s daughter Samantha Geary, was swept into the system and “disappeared from the public eye.” This tragedy has rendered the house unsellable for years, so it stands vacant, occupied only by drug addicts, sex-starved teenagers and the homeless.
Eventually, the house is sold to a family who’s new to the area: Karl, a self-absorbed artist; Eleanor, a breast cancer survivor who is hoping to reinvent her writing career; and Irina, a 12-year-old kid obsessed with her new home’s chilling history. Irina soon strikes up a friendship with a new girl in town named Sam, who may or may not be the missing Geary child. But it’s the inclusion of another character, The Observer, which sets the book apart from others in the genre.
We’re introduced to The Observer in the first chapter, as its omnipotent presence explores the Geary’s empty house like a camera in a tracking shot, taking in every minute detail: chairs overturned, drawers flung open and lights left on. It’s easy to picture this taking place on the big screen, the camera panning through the house while the murders occur just off-screen. In fact, most of our time with The Observer feels more like a cinematic device than anything, with the character acting as audience and camera all in one. It’s as if Lennon wrote his novel in anticipation of its possible film adaptation (fingers crossed).
But at the center of the novel’s chilling chaos is simply a dysfunctional family struggling to communicate. As Karl and Eleanor’s marriage is failing, Irina is ignored and left to her own devices. This escalates into a situation in which the family members are separated from each other in their own home, creating wide chasms between them filled with regrettable truths—both voiced and left unsaid. Through The Observer, it’s clear that these characters’ choices cement their fate.
The result is a stunning novel that doesn’t shy away from its well-rounded—if disparate—characters and their consequences. While a less-talented writer would wrap up the drama with a nice bow, Lennon chooses to meet violent responses with a poignant dose of reality. He writes Broken River’s final confrontation through The Observer’s perspective with a detached tone, bringing the narratives’ mounting dread to a fitting conclusion. After all, violent beginnings have violent ends in the real world.