Long Bright River by Liz Moore
Published by Hutchinson, 2020
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
The initial setup for Liz Moore’s Long Bright River is almost classic crime/thriller territory, as we’re introduced to a police officer concerned that her missing sister (a drug addict and prostitute) will emerge as the next victim in a string of killings against similarly vulnerable women. Her personal investment in the case will push her prided professionalism to its limit, as she seeks to find her sister before the killer can. While the novel does have all the gripping intensity and intrigue of a good mystery romp, it opts (initially, at least) for a very different stylistic approach.
The first 300 or so pages are a real slow burn, with Moore taking the time to establish the community her characters inhabit; one that has been ravaged by the opioid crisis, corruption, and the dangerous feeling that everyone has become desensitised and complacent in the face of such injustice. Despite the somewhat restrained plot progression, the book always reads swiftly, largely because of how well Moore establishes her characters and the hardships they face. She captures with real grit and poignancy just how devastating the opioid crisis has been in the US, examining not only the myriad ways it impacts individuals, but the ripple effect it has throughout families and communities, from one generation to the next. But if Moore is unflinching in her portrayal of addiction, she is never judgemental of her characters – a balancing act that takes real writerly skill.
In her more nuanced approach, Moore is also able to tackle some other big themes, particularly the struggle of single, working mothers, and the many sacrifices they are forced to make. The more she is drawn into the case, and the seedy underbelly of the town, the more our heroine must wrestle with the guilt of seeing less of her young son. He, in turn, shows increasing signs of separation anxiety, which I thought was handled really well. Indeed, where many authors struggle to write believable, three-dimensional child characters, Moore excelled. My heart broke for young Thomas on several occasions.
If the book is slower and more contemplative at first, it hits breakneck speed and doesn’t relent for the last 100 pages or so (the novel clocking in at around 450 pages in all). The plot itself moves to the fore, in a rapid sequence of twists and revelations – some big, some small; some I predicted, some I didn’t. I can see this sudden and drastic tonal shift being a little jarring for some, but by then I was so invested that I just allowed the pace to carry me through to the end. It was here, however, that I hit the novel’s only other slight stumbling block. I felt Moore erred towards the kind of conclusion that wraps up every single plot thread a little too neatly, and in very quick succession, akin to ticking off a checklist to ensure there are no loose ends. In a book that’s all about how messy life can get, I wouldn’t have opposed a little more ambiguity where certain characters and events were concerned.
This is a hugely readable novel overall; one that thrills as a piece of entertainment as much as it shines a light on a very real problem within society. It shows the kind of thematic depth crime books are capable of, and why genre fiction should not be automatically dismissed when it comes to literary awards. With that in mind, this is one that has had a bit of buzz as a possible longlist entry for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (within my bookish circles, anyway), and I’d be more than happy to see it make the cut.
You can pick up a copy of Long Bright River from Book Depository by clicking here.