The River, by Peter Heller, caught my eye pretty much as soon as it came out. I read Heller’s debut novel, The Dog Stars, many years back, and it’s one that I remember fondly. (I’m also rather proud of my instagram photo of it.) It was an unassuming, thoughtful and interesting little novel. Plus, the premise of The River (released March 5) — two guys on a whitewater canoeing trip caught in a forest fire — sounded promising to me, so I was eager to revisit his work.
Sidenote: I also really like the cover of this book. I love its simplicity, the bright contrasting colors, and how it illustrates the chaotic movement of the river. I know it shouldn’t matter, but it totally does. Anyway.
Jack and Wynn are best friends from college, bonded by their mutual love for the outdoors. When a forest fire breaks out during a canoeing trip, they’re initially only mildly concerned. However, soon they come across a man whose wife is missing, and the small fire they initially saw has quickly grown into a blaze.
As the fire approaches and the situation gets more complicated, the two friends will find themselves and their friendship tested against nature and forces out of their control.
Book Review: the Stylistic Stuff
Stylistically, my impression of this book is similar to those I had from reading the Dog Stars many years ago. Heller’s prose flows smoothly. He takes his time at parts, but I was always eager to keep reading.
The plot is simple and streamlined, but the characters are complex. A lot of authors dazzle you with huge casts of characters with big personalities and many competing subplots, but Heller eschews all that and focuses on fully developing the specific story he wants to tell.
As for the pacing, there’s a brief interlude in book (basically while the guys aren’t too concerned yet about the fire) before things start to pick up. From there, the action-oriented aspects of the story take hold, pushing the story forward, guided along by Heller’s confident writing. It’s an intense, poetic and absorbing story.
Book Review: the Outdoorsy Stuff
Heller is clearly knowledgeable about the outdoors. The authenticity of The River sets this story apart and heightens its immersive qualities. There are a multitude of technical details (the way the smoke blows or how the currents flow or what food supplies are available, etc.) ingrained in the plot, which adds a distinctive, realistic dimension to his storytelling. The fact that Jack and Wynn’s decision-making is limited by the rules of nature and driven by specialized survivalist expertise legitimizes and raises the stakes of the story.
The (minor) downside is that occasionally, Heller lets his love of the outdoors overtake the story. I got a little lost during some of his many descriptions of survivalist equipment and whatnot. There’s a few lengthy asides detailing things like their different fly-fishing techniques or a few pages dedicated to their lists of supplies and how exactly they packed it — I’m going to confess and say that I skimmed over all of this. To be honest, I thought these parts borderlined on being a tad overindulgent at times (we get it, Peter, you’re outdoorsy). Still, his knowledgeability is a net positive for the book.
Read it or Skip it?
Slow burning and intense, this book is a proper survivalist story. The River would be a fantastic book for any anyone who is an outdoorsy-type — full of evocative details and with obvious attention to technical accuracy.
That said, I’m not remotely outdoorsy, and I still appreciated it for its well-constructed prose and the straightforward but textured narrative. I think a lot of people could appreciate this absorbing little book, even if you have limited nature knowledge. It’s solid and understated, and I liked it.
People who might not enjoy this: if you’re looking for a madcap-type adventure, a thriller with surprising plot twists, anything that’s fantastical, etc. This is not that type of book. Look elsewhere. This is a very grounded, intimate story about friendship, grief and survival in the wilderness.
If the writing style sounds interesting to you, but you aren’t particularly into the outdoors, The Dog Stars (post-apocalyptic fiction) is also another book of his to look at.
Have you read this or do you think you’d consider reading it? Share our thoughts below! See The River on Amazon.