The Guide by Peter Heller
Published by Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date: August 24, 2021
After finishing Peter Heller’s new novel, The Guide, I realized I needed to come up with a new genre for books of this type that draw me so here it is: Wilderness Thrillers. Novels where the authors’ portrayal of nature is as compelling as the plot. Heller’s last novel The River, Charlotte McConaghy’s Once There Were Wolves, and Tim Johnston’s Descent all come to mind.
Jack is a young outdoorsman weighed down by grief and self-recrimination. His best friend recently died and he blames himself. These circumstances are the basis for The River, but you don’t need to have read it to read The Guide. Jack finds himself at loose ends so takes a job as a guide at an exclusive, private fishing lodge in Colorado. It looks like the perfect setup—his own cabin, away from the outside world doing what he loves best.
Kingfisher Lodge is not only private it’s high security. Given the never-ending virus variants in recent years that have made masks and testing an everyday reality it provides a safe respite for the very wealthy and famous. Jack is the guide for Alison, a famous singer, but also an accomplished fly fisherman (sorry folks, I researched this and it is considered the gender neutral version of this noun so don’t hate). Her low maintenance attitude and love of the outdoors is a relief compared to some of the other guests who seem to be there more for the drinks and spa treatments.
But in this peaceful setting Jack’s been made aware of some unsettling information. The landowner just north of the lodge protects his boundary with hired gunmen. Crossing into his portion of the river can easily get you shot. Within the lodge’s parameters he discovers a camera underneath a bridge. The gates to the grounds lock from the outside and the inside. Why? Also, guests disappear for days and when they return they’re different. Quiet, withdrawn.
Just as a fisherman teases a fly into the water to lure the fish, Heller carefully drops in these anomalies in The Guide. They come in the midst of luminous descriptions of moving water, casting a line, returning a fish to the river after the catch. This creates a dissonance exacerbated by the fact that the plot spins into dystopian darkness. There was a time when I would have said it was over-the-top, but in this case I’m not sure. Things beyond my understanding are happening out in the open in the world so who’s to say Heller’s vision is extreme?
I’m 90% certain I have no interest in ever fishing, but Heller’s writing about it in The Guide is still mesmerizing. Enough to make me think I want to fish even though I never will. If the action comes on a bit strong towards the end it’s not enough to dampen my enthusiasm for this jewel of a novel. The Guide lays bare the symmetry of power in nature and how out of balance the dynamic is in man.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Knopf Publishing in exchange for an honest review.*