Long Bright River by Liz Moore
Published by Riverhead Books
Publication date: January 7, 2020
Mickey has been a Philadelphia police officer for 13 years. She’s got the brains and the experience to become a detective, but stays as a patrol cop in a neighborhood called Kensington. A high crime area where the yearly overdose deaths top 900. Why? Because it’s the only way she can keep track of her baby sister Kacey, an addict who sells sex to pay for her habit. Only now, as Kacey stares down at the body of another dead prostitute, she realizes she hasn’t seen Kacey in months. This is Long, Bright River, Liz Moore’s surprising new novel. Surprising because it bends genre boundaries, pushing from straight-up thriller: someone’s killing prostitutes to literary fiction: two sisters raised in the same circumstances whose paths head in opposite directions.
As the murders continue we learn that Mickey hasn’t spoken to Kacey in five years. Her only contact is through Kacey’s friends on the streets. The deeper she digs to find her sister, the more dangerous the search becomes. We watch as sisterly concern pushes against all the very real battles Mickey has in her own life. Namely, a five-year-old son who has to be left with a bored teen babysitter all day after Mickey moves out of their house to protect them from the boy’s father. Now, she’s in a constant state of high alert. Her sister’s disappearance is the last log on the pyre of a life that feels ready to burn her to ash.
Moore deftly manipulates Kacey’s and Mickey’s lives for maximum impact, but not in a way that feels sensational. In discussing this book my blogging friend, Sarah, reminded me about Dopesick, a nonfiction book about the opioid crisis. The impact of Kacey’s opioid addiction and the devastation it wreaks on her life lines up with everything I read in that book. With Mickey, it’s the tensions experienced by a single mother in a high-risk job, compounded by a complicated personal life.
There is so much at play in Long Bright River that it works against the book a bit. I became more invested in Kacey and Mickey’s story, so the murder mystery began to feel like an impediment. When the truth was revealed, I had little reaction. Even if I didn’t guess who it was, it wasn’t a surprise when I found out. What made the pages turn was the story of two women, both with the deck fully stacked against them—genetically (addict mother) and environmentally (no strong parental presence)—and how their lives split into positive and negative. For Mickey, it feels that clear-cut
I looked at her, blinking, and said to her as levelly as I could that I grew up in the same household as she did. My implication, of course, was that it was the decisions I have made in life that have placed me on my specific path—decisions, not chance. And that although our childhood may not have been idyllic, it sufficiently prepared one of us, at least, for a productive life.
But Moore knows better and throughout Long Bright River she gives the reader more than just the surface, making this a strong start to 2020 reading.
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