J. Robert Lennon's fiction frequently takes familiar events and plotlines and suddenly, jarringly, pushes them into the unexpected.
His 2009 novel "Castle" initially seems like the tale of a primal struggle, but it folds in on itself and asks questions of memory instead; his more recent "Familiar" tells a story of familial grief, then sends its protagonist careening into a different version of her own life with little explanation.
On the surface, his new novel, "Broken River," seems familiar: The family at its center is estranged (Karl, an artist, has cheated on his wife, Eleanor, a writer; their daughter Irina has a complex relationship with each of them), and the house they buy in upstate New York seems like a respite from the problems they left in the city. Soon enough, that home's troubled history — in the first chapter, Lennon recounts a violent crime that took place there — returns to the forefront, as do the fissures in Karl and Eleanor's marriage.
Complicating matters is a spectral presence, known as the Observer, that hovers on the fringes of the narrative, watching these dramas play out and tensions gradually rise. The presence of the Observer can initially seem more metafictional than metaphysical: Its movements and areas of focus echo the action of the plot, and its relative omnipresence suggests a stand-in for the reader. But over the course of the book, the Observer seems to have quirks of its own: an impatience with certain events, and knowledge of other things that the reader has no business knowing.
The Observer's presence also echoes other aspects of the narrative: Eleanor and Irina both become fixated on their new home's harrowing past and begin delving into the crime that occurred years before. As each of them becomes a regular on an online forum dedicated to unsolved crimes, Lennon raises questions of surveillance and the possibility of anonymity — questions that the spectral being lurking on the fringes of things helps to drive home.
Lennon evokes the passage of time with precision: A long passage about the house's many years of emptiness turns detachment into something moving. He's equally good with the messier emotional materials: Eleanor's creative frustrations with her writing become quite tangible, as do Karl's failings as an artist, a partner and a parent. There are moments here of chilling violence, and of nuanced comedies of manners; the result is a heady novel that distills a host of anxieties into something offbeat and hard to shake.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol 1 Brooklyn.