Review: This Bright River by Patrick Somerville
This novel examines one act of violence to discover elusive truths about the nature of delusion and evil.
Wed Jun 20 2012
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
By Patrick Somerville. Reagan Arthur Books, $25.
This Bright River begins in a bar in Madison, Wisconsin. Two strangers, their identities unknown to us, meet and spend the evening bonding; they then exit into the cold night, where a shocking act of violence occurs. That incident hangs over much of Patrick Somerville’s new novel—it’s a crime-show-style cold open with implications that weave their way through the rest of the story.
The novel’s central characters and narrators, Ben Hanson and Laurie Sheehan, are former classmates who are reunited when Ben returns to Wisconsin. Home to restore his late uncle’s cabin, Ben finds himself struggling with his newfound sobriety; Laurie, a former doctor, buries herself in veterinary work and tries to shake off a series of past traumas. As their histories emerge via flashbacks, they are drawn to one another—and toward the isolated shelter where Ben seeks answers regarding another bygone tragedy. Stories nest subtly within other stories until, near the end, there’s a revelation about one precise, profound moment in time.
Somerville is after something grand here, using nonlinear storytelling and shifting points of view to investigate elusive truths and to explore the nature of both delusion and evil. Though one of the two protagonists comes into sharper focus than the other, the author largely succeeds. This Bright River is propulsive and thought-provoking, from its unorthodox family dynamics to the sometimes paradoxical messages it imparts. “Novels are boring,” Ben’s friend Jeremy tells him at one point. Later, that same character points out that “everybody needs stories.” This book refutes the first point and serves as a fine example of the second.