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’s true skill stems from his ability to combine a sharply focused character study, told from multiple perspectives, with a wider social realism that’s as unsettling as it is depressingly accurate ... What prevents Broken River from being classified as simply a horror or crime story are Lennon’s linguistic energy and dark humour; external incidents are significant, he suggests, but nowhere near as powerful as thought processes and the decisions we make every day ... It’s a rare book that manages to bend genres so successfully — that thrills and frightens while evoking such insight into human failings and the lure of the past.
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.'