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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Book review: Patrick Somerville's This Bright River

Posted By on 06.26.12 at 03:04 PM

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After years of seeming to be at sea, Benjamin Hanson returns to his childhood home in Wisconsin in 2008 when his parents ask him to ready his deceased uncle's property for sale. A former burnout and convict, Ben has no money or prospects, and his only marketable skills are his knacks for standardized-test taking and puzzle making. Ben clearly is still devastated by the death of his geologist older cousin Wayne at the family cabin on the Bright River 12 winters earlier. While prepping his uncle's home Ben finds Wayne's old school stuff, including a nonsensical poem resembling a puzzle that turns Wayne's demise into an inscrutable riddle Ben wants to solve. In a second narrative thread, Somerville introduces Lauren, a quick-witted and assiduous doctor who worked at a refugee camp until it was attacked by guerrillas and then at a clinic in Zurich until her marriage ended traumatically. Ben and Lauren, who went to high school together, weren’t friends. But after some fortuitous meetings in town and a seemingly accidental encounter with a menacing man in Madison, Lauren reveals her past—and a long sequence of nightmarish secrets—to Ben.

Somerville's control over the levers of compassion is expert as he draws Ben and Lauren closer together: their inner monologues do not sparkle, and the dialogue is often lackluster, but the personalities Somerville renders are irresistibly believable and totally sympathetic. If the prose is unimaginative, if there's a poverty in the diction, rest assured that Somerville is responding to some embedded truth in his fictional universe. In this case, the worldview of the doomed Wayne Hanson, who sees words at best as rocks in the riverbed, bearing the action along, and at worst as the foundation of the Big Deceit, the nonsensical lies people tell each other, that he expects to be ground out of existence in geologic time when the bedrock of humanity cracks and swirls to dust. What baffles Wayne is the lack of power words have to subvert the human capacity for violence. Why, he asks, could the Word of God not stop his ancestors from heaping cruelties on this country’s indigenous peoples? How is it that explorers coming from abroad could record their pleasure at hearing boulders, undisturbed for hundreds of years, groaning and tumbling at river bottom? What is the use of the boons of civilization if they can’t keep strangers from hurting your family? Though rivers run and churn, and their waters are different every time you look, families can yet come to live comfortably in the eddies. As Ben observes, harm on purpose is not one-sided: if you indulge revenge as reprisal for harm, sooner or later, "You're just a big walking principle." Family may complicate reinvention, but the thing about a river is that it reinvents itself constantly, and sometimes even someone like Ben can surprise himself.

Somerville reads from This Bright River tonight at the Book Cellar and Friday at Women & Children First.

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