Broken River by J Robert Lennon

published 2017

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[A real estate agent trying to make a sale in upstate New York]

The clipboard woman returns. She is followed by a man. He’s tall, bespectacled, heavy in the middle, thickly bearded. He’s wearing jeans and a leather coat and expensive shoes and is about 35 years old.

[Karl, a sculptor, and his wife Eleanor and daughter Irina come to live in the house]

[Irina] hurries down the path to the studio to give the phone back to Father. He is hard at work bending hot metal again, so she slips the phone onto the workbench and edges toward the door…

He takes off the protective goggles and wipes sweat from underneath his fogged-over specs. He is wearing baggy jeans with suspenders and a tee shirt. He looks cook. He always does. She feels her irritation draining away.

commentary: I don’t know why J Robert Lennon isn’t more famous, why he isn’t winning literary awards all over. It is excellent news that George Saunders won the Booker Prize this week for Lincoln in the Bardo - I said in my blogpost in March that I expected it to be one of the best books I read this year. Lennon is right up there in the same class, but, roughly speaking, no-one has heard of him – particularly in the UK.

The three books I have read by him – Familiar, Happyland and this one – couldn’t be more different from each other, but all are hugely entertaining books that are also literary works of art, with high aims easily attained. HOW is this man not more celebrated and widely-read?

Broken River starts with a distanced third person narrative of a kind that drives me mad normally – various events are described via an amorphous Observer: no-one has a name or anything other than a description. (I have flung books across the room for this crime before now). But Lennon manages to be un-annoying, and eventually the story proper gets under way. Karl, Eleanor and Irina move into a remote house in the woods in upstate New York: a terrible crime occurred here not long ago, and no-one else wants to buy it. The family is trying for a new start after various emotional problems. Are they aware of the crime? – do they care, are they trying to find out about it…? There are some surprising answers.

And the crime really was recent: there are some participants who might be still around. The book is amazingly tense, as well as very funny and clever and full of spot-on observations, and the climax is not for the faint of heart. Usually when ‘literary’ authors turn to crime, their efforts are not actually that good compared with those known as ‘genre writers’, but this book is an exception. Lennon has an incredible lightness of touch as he skims from one style to another, introducing convincing family scenes, peripheral characters sketched perfectly in a few lines, and small scenes of other kinds of lives.

Normally while I’m reading a book I will be highlighting great quotes, good phrases or sentences or words, but in this case there were so many I had to stop, the whole book is quotable.
Irina was sitting at the kitchen table wearing headphones, but, cleverly, the headphones were not plugged into anything. This is a trick Irina would play around her parents as well, if her parents made any effort whatsoever to conceal what they said to each other.
Two nicely-written sentences that tell you a lot about the whole family.

Karl shows his daughter a trick with a large block of ice, a rack and a bathtub: it seems interesting but possibly irrelevant, but when you think about it later it resonates throughout the whole book, and I have kept thinking about it ever since finishing Broken River.
Gravity will push the ice block through the grate; enthalpy will fuse it back together… Her father probably intended this experiment to illustrate some philosophical principle, or maybe some commonplace of human behaviour… She can’t remember. Today, though, it tells her that there is a force that keeps intact things intact… Some rough magic.
The book bears a faint resemblance to Tony & Susan, the cult novel by Austin Wright, recently made into the film Nocturnal Animals by Tom Ford, and the subject of a cross-blogging experiment by Chrissie Poulson and me. This book is about a hundred times better.

I hope J Robert Lennon writes more and more books…

The hipsterish photos are of a member of my family, and used with his gracious permission.  Thank you Robin Jack, and you are neither heavy in the middle, nor 35.


  1. It sounds as though this one tells a good family story, and gives insight into character, as well as telling the main story. And I do love that writing style. He chooses his words really effectively! I can see why you think he deserves more attention.

    1. Thanks Margot - it just seems odd to me when I look at some of the books that make the bestseller lists... Lennon is such a talented and entertaining writer.

  2. This sounds fabulous, Moira! Just what I like. But when will I have time . . .

    1. I'm certain you'd like it Chrissie - but who am I to make others' TBR problems worse?

  3. This is an approach / avoidance dilemma for me. The extract sounds good (and you know I don't like present tense). Describing the book as "amazingly tense" worries me, because I just finished a book where I was very tense through 2/3 of the book, and it was unpleasant for me. Even though it was a very good book.

    1. Yes - I would have to say this is tense, though I didn't find it unpleasantly so, but I know it is an issue for you. And you are not short of books to read already...

  4. I did have a look at his books in the past, but never quite got over the line with him. I'll stay mildly interested, but leave reading him to others I think.

    1. Of the three I have read, this is definitely the one you should read, should it ever turn up! It is actually a proper noir crime story as well as everything else...


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