Book Review: The River At Night

A high-stakes drama set against the harsh beauty of the Maine wilderness, charting the journey of four friends as they fight to survive the aftermath of a white water rafting accident, The River at Night is a nonstop and unforgettable thriller by a stunning new voice in fiction.

Winifred Allen needs a vacation.

Stifled by a soul-crushing job, devastated by the death of her beloved brother, and lonely after the end of a fifteen-year marriage, Wini is feeling vulnerable. So when her three best friends insist on a high-octane getaway for their annual girls’ trip, she signs on, despite her misgivings.

What starts out as an invigorating hiking and rafting excursion in the remote Allagash Wilderness soon becomes an all-too-real nightmare: A freak accident leaves the women stranded, separating them from their raft and everything they need to survive. When night descends, a fire on the mountainside lures them to a ramshackle camp that appears to be their lifeline. But as Wini and her friends grasp the true intent of their supposed saviors, long buried secrets emerge and lifelong allegiances are put to the test. To survive, Wini must reach beyond the world she knows to harness an inner strength she never knew she possessed.

With intimately observed characters, visceral prose, and pacing as ruthless as the river itself, The River at Night is a dark exploration of creatures—both friend and foe—that you won’t soon forget.

You know when you go to a horror movie, and the main character does really stupid things, and you just want to shout at her (because, let’s face it, horror movies love to make it about a her)… NO! TURN BACK! DON’T OPEN THE DOOR! DON’T GO DOWN THAT CREEPY CORRIDOR!

Well, in the case of The River At Night, it’s more like NO! DO NOT GO OFF INTO THE WOODS TOTALLY UNPREPARED! DO NOT GO INTO A RURAL AREA WHERE THE ONLY PEOPLE AROUND FOR 30 MILES ARE CREEPY, SEXIST HUNTERS! DO NOT PLACE YOUR LIVES IN THE HANDS OF A 20-YEAR-OLD WITH NO BACKUP!

Okay, on the one hand we have a very readable, action-packed story that keeps the adrenaline pumping. On the other hand… STOP MAKING STUPID DECISIONS!

In The River At Night, four women in their mid-thirties decide to follow ringleader Pia’s crazy push to embark on a white-water rafting adventure for their annual get-together, rather than basking on a beach or basically anything at all sane or safe. Instead, they drive nine hours into the Maine wilderness to go rafting on a pristine river with a tour company — really just a father and son — who don’t even have a website, as Wini points out.

I mean really. Who doesn’t have a website?

Anyhoo… the four friends have been getting together for years for their annual escape from their real lives, their meaningless corporate jobs, their unhappy marriages, their stressful obligations. Wini, as our main character, is particularly in need of escape this year after the implosion of her marriage and the suicide of her mentally ill brother.

Pia is the wild one, always in the lead, always pushing the others to take chances and live on the edge — so when she decides they need this life-affirming adventure, the other three fall in line, with some doubts, but ultimately following along. Off they all go to REI to buy their shiny new gear, and then it’s off to the wilds, where they encounter creepy people in a remote general store before arriving at the wilderness lodge from which they’ll start their river adventure.

Their guide is young, sexy, and perhaps has a shady past. No one is 100% comfortable, although Pia insists that everything is fantastic. And then, of course, they hit the river, and pretty quickly all hell breaks loose. Before long, the four women find themselves without a guide, without their gear, completely cut off from the outside world with no means of communication, and with no clue what to do.

And then they encounter the crazy hill folk.

Yikes.

While the book held my attention and kept me turning the pages, certain things just drove me nuts.

First of all, I can’t stand when people place themselves in peril as a growth opportunity. Nope, I’ve never rafted before, so it makes total sense for me to do so on a dangerous river with an unknown guide and no support systems! Slow your roll, sisters.

Second, there are about a thousand warning signs that any rational person might have considered. The roads are creepy. They’re miles past any sign of civilization. Their cell phones don’t work. All the buildings they see along the way are falling apart. The few people they encounter are weird and menacing.

Third, loose ends and/or unexplained bits. If these women are the first to hit this pristine river, then what are all the other people doing at the lodge? Where are they all off to? Did our group of supposedly smart women ask any questions at all about emergency procedures or insurance or any other of about a thousand what ifs? What was up with that kitchen worker at the lodge who seems like she has an agenda with guide Rory but then disappears from the story? What about Rory’s dad? If they had to hike to get to the launching spot because there aren’t passable roads, how did their raft and gear get there? On and on and on.

What really made me bonkers was how these women see themselves and each other. There are repeated references to them being middle-aged. Hello? Middle-aged at age 35? Um, no. Or take this brief description — Wini’s view of one of her friends:

It occurred to me that here was a woman who might not age well, especially in the face. Too many of her emotions already lived there in ever-deepening lines around her eyes and mouth — even at age thirty-seven. But I loved her scrappy toughness; in fact, we all made fun of her for injecting her own Botox […]

I mean, really. Who talks about her friends this way?

Finally, though, the straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the crazy hill folk. If this had just been about a group of women, ill-advised and ill-prepared as they were, having to survive alone in the wilderness, it might have worked for me a lot better. I mean, there are even some good passages that convey the fear of all that they face:

Full on darkness, and all its terrors. I suddenly understood cultures that believed in demons and chimeras, werewolves and gollums. With no walls around us, no light or source of warmth, what besides the monstrous makes sense? Every sound was a beast.

So if it were just about surviving a rafting accident, maybe what happens might have sustained an air of believability. Because no matter how dumb the whole enterprise was, it’s conceivable to think that Pia’s strong personality might have been able to convince everyone else to play along against their better judgment. And given that, it could be really exciting or inspiring to see them working together, overcoming obstacles, outsmarting their own circumstances.

But nope. The crazy hill folk, rather than the river and the wilderness, becomes the chief danger. At which point I got muscle strain from how hard I was rolling my eyes. I mean, our heroines end up fleeing the crazy lady with a gun by jumping on a wooden raft and going down a series of waterfalls without any oars… and somehow survive? None of what happens makes a lick of sense. And never mind the continuity bits, such as having a dinner of roasted varmints and then on the next page talking about incessant hunger. And why bother having a character warn about getting sick from drinking the river water if nobody ends up getting sick?

I don’t know. There are definitely exciting moments in this book, but ultimately, the profound personal growth these characters supposedly undergo because of their ordeal feels flat and false. Wini starts bland, and ends bland. I never quite got the friendship between these women, and that didn’t change by the end of the book.

And then there’s the fact that even in the next to last paragraph, as Wini is supposedly being positive, she’s still focusing on her “aging body” and “dull job”. Way to be upbeat, Wini!

So, once again, I find myself rambling on about a book I can’t really recommend. Sure, it’s a fast-paced read and it never lost my attention — but too many pieces make little sense, and the weird plot choices only make it worse. Besides which, for me, a book in which supposedly smart people make decision after decision that’s foolish or illogical — well, no. Clearly, that’s a situation that leaves me fuming, so this just probably wasn’t a good reading choice for me at all.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The River At Night
Author: Erica Ferencik
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Publication date: January 10, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Library

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