Written by Erica Ferencik — The buzz for this thriller started last year, when an advance proof arrived in a waterproof pouch with a little torch, map and protein bar. It transpires that all of these things would have been more use to the characters in the book than me, but isn’t that the great thing about a riveting tale? It takes you to places you’re never likely to go, on adventures you’d never dream of undertaking.
Each year, four approaching-middle age friends take time out of their busy schedules to get together and enjoy a weekend away. Risk-averse magazine designer Wini is hoping for some beach time, but leader of the pack Pia has other ideas. Her plan involves white water rafting in a remote part of Maine. Emergency room nurse Rachel and English teacher Sandra are definitely up for the challenge and when her friends won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, Wini reluctantly tags along too. It’s a decision they will all live to regret..
Those little gifts that came along with the early proof came in quite useful – the torch for reading through the night; the energy bar as sustenance as a fast-moving story pulls the reader along like a twig on an eddying flow of water. The emotions ebb and flow too, from exasperation at weakling Wini, through anger at bossy Pia, to shock and downright fear as the weekend of fun and female bonding turns decidedly dark and desperate.
Wini is the first-person narrator of this story and an unfailingly honest one. Recently divorced and still mourning the death of her beloved younger brother, she is on a personal journey that is every bit as frightening as the one she is about to share with her friends. Right from the off, you have the feeling that something bad is going to happen – the only questions are how, when and where. When you are proved right, though, be prepared for high drama and raised blood pressure.
It’s all so very exhilarating until a freak accident leaves the foursome stranded in the wilderness, without a guide or even a raft. Then they spy a campfire in the distance. Could it spell salvation, or trouble with a capital T? In a plot line that melds Deliverance with Little Women, you can probably guess which of the alternatives fits, and in truth there are plenty of pretty predictable elements here – to pinch an old saying, there were always going to be tears before bedtime.
The girls discover a mother and her speech-impaired son, who are living off grid in a makeshift home cobbled together from old car parts, tree branches and other bits and bobs. At first, Simone seems friendly enough. She communicates with her son, Dean, by sign language, instructing him to help the girls return to civilisation the following day. But Wini’s dead brother was deaf and she too is proficient in sign language. As it dawns on her that the woodswoman is passing on a far more deadly message to the young boy she realises that they must escape… or die.
What keeps the reader engaged, and the story moving along at rapid pace, is the ebbing and flowing of the relationship between the four women as ever-more-difficult circumstances call for even Wini to step up to the plate and show some backbone.
The River at Night is an immersive read. Lovingly crafted descriptions of the landscape draw you in and have you batting away imaginary mosquitoes and listening out for twigs cracking under the weight of an advancing bear. It came as a surprise to look up and realise I was actually safe at home, reading!
This is a fine introduction to an author and former stand-up comedian who has two previous novels to her name and has written for various magazines and for the David Letterman Show. It also launches Bloomsbury’s new crime imprint, Raven Books and bodes well for the releases to come, from both publisher and author.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars