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.
J. Robert Lennon is a connoisseur of calamity, qualms and paradox, all of which are on profuse display in his crafty, seductive eighth novel ... you begin to suspect that the Observer is a sort of self-satiric version of the author, a device to provide a running commentary on Lennon’s own ambivalent relationship to plot: his glee in creating it, his misgivings about the ordeals he has to put his characters through ... Broken River is a remarkable performance, a magic trick that makes you laugh at its audacity. Lennon has written a realistic novel, with vivid characters and flashes of humor and an evocative mood, that is also a playful, sophisticated meditation on storytelling itself: down-home metafiction.
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.