The RiverBook - 2019
From the critics
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To my mind, there’s nothing cozier than reading a creepy book in a tent by flashlight, as a storm rolls gravelly thunder off the distant granite hills. Each time I camp, I hope for at least one such night, and keep my fingers crossed one of the books I brought fits the bill. Reader, I have found the book for this task.
Peter Heller’s slim novel, The River, is almost a lot of things, and perfectly itself. It’s almost a thriller, but it’s too literary and emotionally honest. It’s almost literary fiction, but there’s too much adventure. It’s almost nature writing, except there’s a darn fine plot and characters that sear into the imagination.
The plot opens with two men, Wynn and Jack, on a bucket list canoe trip down the Maskwa River in Ontario’s far north, headed toward Hudson Bay. Best friends since their first year of college, both are completely at home in the wilderness. Heller himself is avidly outdoorsy, and his knowledge of backcountry survival techniques combine with spare, crystal clear prose to make the dense, murky blue-green wilderness come terrifyingly alive. He captures the exact sound of water running off a paddle in a deadening fog so accurately it makes your hair stand up. This talent lends the first portion of the novel a serene calm we all wish we could capture every trip we take.
It doesn’t take long for the calm to unravel, though. Soon enough, the men meet a couple of rough men in a motorized boat who give them the creeps. Later, they scale a tree when making camp for the night, and discover a large forest fire bearing down in their direction. They furiously calculate what they’d need to do to get past the fire – they’d need to move at an almost inhuman pace. Staying longer isn’t a possibility, as the cold is already beginning to settle into shortened August nights. They resolve to move on fast, but find themselves in a dense fog in the wind-tossed dark – more unsettling since fog and wind are an unnatural pairing. As they fight the whitecaps, they hear what sounds like a domestic dispute. Initially they press on, but then decide they need to find the couple, check on them, and warn them about the fire. They’re nowhere to be found for a few miles - until they find the man without his wife, claiming that she died of a fall, but leaving both Wynn and Jack with a sick sense deep in their bellies.
From here, the story condenses and moves so fast the reader can have a hard time stopping to savour the details, but the details are worthy of pause. The further Wynn and Jack move into the wilderness and the closer they get to the fire, the more tangled they become in the lives of the others trapped on the river trying to outrun the fire. The story builds to a conclusion so sublimely wrought it’s seared into my visual memory.
The River is highly recommended to anyone looking for a more literary thriller, especially those with a passion for the outdoors. Read it in a tent on a stormy night in the backcountry, if you dare.
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