A family drama and murder mystery. When Brooklyn artist Karl Jandek moves with his novelist wife, Eleanor, to an upstate home in Broken River, N.Y., to save their failing marriage, they neglect to tell their adolescent daughter, Irina, that the house’s previous owners were brutally murdered on its grounds a decade earlier. As things unravel, the family is watched by a spectral presences known as The Observer.
Violence leaves a stain that soaks into the fibers of a civilization, a locale, even a family. Author J. Robert Lennon explores this stain’s significance in Broken River, a darkly cinematic novel that ponders both violence’s lasting implications and the past’s enduring consequences ... In fact, most of our time with The Observer feels more like a cinematic device than anything, with the character acting as audience and camera all in one. It’s as if Lennon wrote his novel in anticipation of its possible film adaptation (fingers crossed) ... The result is a stunning novel that doesn’t shy away from its well-rounded—if disparate—characters and their consequences. While a less-talented writer would wrap up the drama with a nice bow, Lennon chooses to meet violent responses with a poignant dose of reality.
Lennon raises questions of surveillance and the possibility of anonymity — questions that the spectral being lurking on the fringes of things helps to drive home. Lennon evokes the passage of time with precision: A long passage about the house's many years of emptiness turns detachment into something moving. He's equally good with the messier emotional materials: Eleanor's creative frustrations with her writing become quite tangible, as do Karl's failings as an artist, a partner and a parent. There are moments here of chilling violence, and of nuanced comedies of manners; the result is a heady novel that distills a host of anxieties into something offbeat and hard to shake.
Along the way, something interesting happens to the Observer: It becomes sentient, and as it perceives 'the gears of cause and effect locking together, increasing in rotational velocity,' it grows curious about the fates of the characters. The conceit adds a layer of awareness to a skillful if otherwise conventional crime story. Broken River is a novel that watches as its own plot unfolds, wondering at the way that 'everything is exquisitely interconnected, malevolent, and dangerous.'