Set against the opioid crisis in Philadelphia Liz Moore’s thought-provoking novel portrays the long-lasting and devastating effects that addiction have on an individual, on a family, and on an entire neighbourhood.
“These girls, he says. He looks at me and puts one finger to his right temple, taps it twice. Stupid, is what he means. No sense.”
In Long Bright River Moore focuses her narrative on the fraught relationship between two sisters, showing the circumstances that can lead to or result in addiction, parental negligence, and crime. Sadly, what had the potential of being a captivating tale is somewhat let down by an uneven structure and an undeveloped murder storyline.
The setting of this novel is strikingly rendered. Moore has done an amazing job in depicting both Philadelphia. The neighbourhood of Kensington, the area in which much of the story’s action takes place, comes alive on Moore’s pages. Kensington is reputed has having the highest rates of heroin use in the United States. On its streets there is crime, addiction, and prostitution. While Moore does capture its desperation, she also introduces us to some of its compassionate inhabitants. Readers get a nuanced yet unflinching look at this neighbourhood. There are entire families that fall into drugs. One’s parents, one’s uncles and aunts, and one’s cousin. We understand how difficult it is to break this cycle. Nature and nurture are both to blame for the way in which many children follow the same pattern as their parents and lead a life of crime and addiction. Rather than just presenting us with a Hollywood version of an addict or a prostitute, Moore digs deeper. The people who Mickey encounters on her patrol come across as real people. So much so that readers are bound to feel a mixture of heartbreak and horror over them. Unsurprisingly Dennis Lehane has praised this novel. In many ways Moore’s strong sense of place reminded me of his novels.
Another refreshing thing about Long Bright River is that it subverts the ‘good sister/bad sister0 trope that has been oh-so-popular in recent years. The dynamic between Mickey and Kacey was complex and painfully believable. I certainly felt invested in their relationship and its outcome. The choices they make aren’t always easy to understand but we are fully aware of the circumstances that have shaped them in such a way. Through flashbacks we see the way in which they slowly yet irrevocably drift apart and their past closeness becomes a thing of the past. Yet, in spite of their painful history, the two are bound to each other.
Having a family in Long Bright River is not an easy thing. Mickey’s career path in the police department has made her into a persona non grata to most of her blood relatives. But, as readers soon will realise, this familial uneasiness runs both ways. Connections can be formed with unexpected people, such as Mickey does with her elderly neighbour (who was perhaps my favourite character in the entire novel).
I liked the ambivalence of Moore’s story. There are no easy answers or solutions. People capable of violence or malice can also be capable of kindness.
The Could-Have-Been-Better Things
Mickey’s staccato narration takes some getting used to. While I do understand that if her internal monologue or descriptions occasionally sounded robotic it was because she is a somewhat aloof and logical individual, I wish her narrative hadn’t been so wooden. The ‘then’ sections—aka the flashbacks—would have had a much more emotional impact if they’d been narrated by Kacey. Mickey’s perspective has its limitation. The story would benefitted from having her as the narrator as it would have allowed a more balanced portrayal of their relationship. Kacey was a much more interesting and compelling character, and I do think that having her as a narrator would have made me care more for her.
The pacing isn’t great. There are many instances in which the plot loose itself and doesn’t really advance Mickey’s investigation. Mickey herself makes a lot of dumb decisions, and some of them do seem a bit outlandish. For me, the murder investigation was the novel’s weakest point. While it does show the way in which vulnerable people are used or disregarded by the system that is supposed to help them, it also resorts to cheap, and occasionally predictable, ‘twists’. At times this murder-storyline seems forgotten, only to be later picked up at a too convenient moment.
Long Bright River is a mournful novel as Mickey’s search for her sister is not an easy one. The story shows the in interplay between addiction, poverty, and crime in a stark manner without resorting to pulpy stereotypes. It presents with the devastating reality of the opioid crisis, the way in which can destroy entire families and neighbourhoods, by focusing on the individual rather than the statistics.
Although it has its flaws (the pacing, structure, and protagonist had their weaknesses) I would still recommend it as I could see how much work Moore has put into it.
My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars