Raising river demons: A man and woman reconnect in Wisconsin after many years.
'The Cradle," Patrick Somerville's first novel, was widely praised, including in this newspaper. More than twice as long as "The Cradle," Somerville's second novel is, I think, a better, more complex book, though not without its problems. In trying to sound hip, Somerville's characters often come off as unhip, cute. For some readers, the novel may develop slowly as Somerville prepares us for the surprises in the book's second half. Readers shouldn't be discouraged. This is a fine book that will advance the author's already impressive career.
"This Bright River" is a love story, murder mystery, family drama and engaging puzzle about rivers and water. Water haunts and provokes Ben Hanson and Lauren Sheehan, former high school classmates, as it does the novel's other characters. A river "dark enough to be the river Styx" runs through the fictional St. Helens, Wis., near Milwaukee, where Ben and Lauren, now in their early 30s, reconnect. Fleeing an unhappy marriage, Lauren speculates on rivers and time. Moreover, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the Bright River passes the cabin of Ben's Uncle Denny, where a secret lies buried beneath "a twelve-foot-high ... tree, not twenty years old."
Other river references appear. While living in Oregon, Ben has developed a story for a computer game called "The Rivers." Deceived by his Portland business partner, hurt in love and run afoul of the law, Ben serves time in a minimum-security prison before returning to Wisconsin. Coincidentally, the prison's architect has incorporated into his design impressions of the river he saw in a dream. Or is this another of Ben's puzzles? On a page near the novel's midpoint, the glowing river's seven tributaries, pathways to freedom from the prison, are reproduced in drawings.
The book's most dangerous river, however, courses through the thoughts of Lauren's husband, a physician. As he lapses in and out of madness, dwelling on his and Lauren's past together in Boston, in Chad, in Switzerland, the frightening Will Besco thinks how the "quiet river" in his mind "sometimes overflowed ... when the rains were heavy or the snowfall in some other county, or country, or season led from this to that." Once he decides to harm someone, whether in a refugee camp in Chad, in Madison or up in Michigan, carrying out the plan seems like "running down a mountain. Or floating in the current of a river."
Fittingly, with the river demons of reality and dream slain in this unsettling though finally very hopeful novel about time, consciousness and memory, Ben and Lauren enjoy calmer waters. Accepting Ben's offer to join him for a swim in Wisconsin's Lake Geneva, Lauren thinks "I ... remember feeling that the world seemed new in that moment, and for once I felt okay."
Readers of this compelling novel will be pleased that the deserving lovers have found their way to pleasant shores.
Anthony Bukoski, a former Christopher Isherwood Foundation fellowship winner, lives in Superior, Wis.