If there’s a middle ground between the pot-boiling, page-turning mystery and the novel of Big Ideas, Patrick Somerville has found it. “This Bright River,” his second novel, is a serious literary tragedy of errors that also tells a gripping story.
From Gillian Flynn, bestselling author of Gone Girl:
Ingenious, dark, thrilling and heartbreaking, This Bright River contains prose that will tempt you to linger on the page and a plot that simply won’t let you. Just fantastic.
Literary novels are often accused of being either boring or irrelevant, but Patrick Somerville’s new novel, “This Bright River,” is neither. A sharp and timely commentary on the nature (and future) of narrative, it’s also a pleasure to read..Somerville is a writer of talent who embraces the broader world, equally at home writing about video games, nonlinear narratives, international aid work, the effects of violence on intimate relationships and perhaps most of all, the second acts of American lives.
The novel alternates between Ben’s and Lauren’s perspectives, which gives it a jerky, stop-start quality. The chapters don’t roll forward so much as fit together like puzzle pieces. But Mr. Somerville—who has something of the roadside-diner raconteur about him—makes the approach work on the strength of his writing voice. It possesses a sneaky ease and charm that masks the story’s building menace.
This fine book’s richest explorations are less into the secrets lurking in ordinary-seeming towns than into those harbored by ordinary-seeming families. As Ben unearths details about his cousin’s death, he discovers how much effort his family has invested in keeping the facts buried—facing up to the truth comes to feel like a form of betrayal.
From The Chicago Tribune:
A remarkable achievement…[This Bright River] is a stellar, bruising book about how place forms character and our capacity to transform ourselves.
“This Bright River” is a serious and beautiful book about rebuilding broken lives that Somerville has disguised as entertainment.
Each paragraph has at least one striking or hilarious line. Every few pages manage to bear the full weight of a short story. Dialogue snaps with a bizarre aptness reminiscent of Denis Johnson, and the novel in total presents a coiled, deeply sensitive intelligence. The dust jacket describes Somerville’s sense of humor as “dark,” but for readers of a certain disposition, the universe that he has created here will seem perfectly familiar and in line with the oddness and distinct challenges that come along with being a modern, thinking person. Go buy this book.
A tense philosophical thriller….[Somerville] has given us first in The Cradle and now in This Bright River two different ways of approaching the novel, and if it is a preview of this still-young author’s literary trajectory, there is no telling where he will go next.
Part love story, part murder mystery, part mediation on violence, part exploration of what home can and should mean, this novel roams wide and far, in terms of its story and even its geography—at one point setting down in a refuge camp in Africa. What glues it all together is Ben Hanson, and the writer behind him, Patrick Somerville, who filters the randomness of this world with an exquisitely wry and thought-provoking lens, tossing off one-line life- changers—like “Just to acknowledge that hard truth about people, how you can be a brave person in the world and make sacrifices and do a number of good things, but still not exactly be good” or “Lying in its ultimate and essential sense: knowing nothing about yourself” —that keep you looking for your own revelations along with the characters.
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…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.
Critics hailed Patrick Somerville’s first novel, The Cradle, as a “magical debut” (Chicago Sun-Times), one that “calmly, relentless pulls at the Gothic skein of family tragedies” (Washington Post), “a deeply gratifying modern fable” (The New York Times). With his new novel, Somerville more than makes good on that early promise, telling a powerful story about a young man trying to atone for past mistakes, and a young woman trying not to repeat her own.
Ben Hanson’s aimless life has bottomed out after a series of bad decisions, but a surprising offer from his father draws him home to Wisconsin. There, he finds his family fractured, still reeling from his cousin’s mysterious death a decade earlier.
Lauren Sheehan abandoned her career in medicine after a series of violent events abroad. Now she’s back in the safest place she knows - the same small Wisconsin town where she and Ben grew up - hiding from a world that has only brought her heartache.
As Lauren cautiously expands her horizons and Ben tries to unravel the mysteries of his family and himself, their paths intersect. Could each be exactly what the other needs?
A compelling family drama and a surprising love story, rich with the dark humor and piercing intelligence that made The Cradle so beloved, This Bright River confirms Somerville’s status as one of the most talented writers at work today.
Somerville, the author of two funny, innovative short story collections and an impressive first novel, The Cradle (2009), takes a quantum leap in his torrential second novel, which is set in his home state of Wisconsin…Somerville has a gift for spurring dialogue, and the meandering narrative tributaries he explores stoke our curiosity and build suspense as he crosses the wilderness of madness and bloodshed, lies and loyalty, courage and love in this by turns rolling and raging river of a novel.
From J. Courtney Sullivan, bestselling author of Maine:
This Bright River is nothing short of extraordinary. Somerville has a gift for writing gorgeous prose, complete with sharp humor and a perfect sense of place. But that’s only half the story. There’s also a great romance here and a shocking set of mysteries that get untangled along the way. Addictive, amazing, unforgettable.
From Megan Abbott, bestselling author of Dare Me
Serpentine and hypnotic, This Bright River depicts two vivid characters knocked hard by life, on a perilous journey that reveals the weight and pull of family history. The result is a novel that is both intimate and mysterious, harrowing and brave.
From Nic Pizzolatto, author of Galveston:
This Bright River is a flood of virtuoso prose and characterization. Mystery, memory, pain, and a courageous strand of love are interwoven in a riveting narrative of voices, all singing, all merging into the singular vision of one of American literature’s young masters.
Here’s an essay I wrote for Barnes and Noble about one of the first ideas I had for the book.
Here’s an interview in NewCity about writing the book.
Here’s a long interview in The Rumpus about the book.
Here’s a book trailer with music by Tift Merritt:
(If you have additional questions, email Ben Hanson, the narrator, at hansonben3 at gmail dot com.)