River Road | Carol Goodman | 2016 | Titan Books | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book
Nan Lewis, Professor of Creative Writing at a university in a remote corner of New York State, drives home from the faculty Christmas party in a snow storm. She takes a corner too fast as she drives along River Road, a road that meanders through woods and quiet country. She catches a flash of eyes, caught in the headlights, before she feels the bump of something hitting her car. Nan ends up in a ditch, worried that she’s hurt a deer. She leaves the car to hunt for it and finds nothing. Nan sits down against a tree in the snow and for a few moments falls asleep. She is traumatised and it’s hardly surprising. Nan should be the last person in the world to take that corner too fast. It was at that very spot on River Road that another woman skidded off the road but then it had been not a deer but Emmy, Nan’s own daughter, caught beneath the wheels.
But the next morning the police arrive at Nan’s door to inform her that one of her favourite students, Leia Dawson, was killed in a hit and run on River Road the night before. The damage to Nan’s car makes her a suspect. From that moment on, everything changes for Nan. Her friends, colleagues and the police no longer view her with care as a victim. Nan is now, in their eyes, a killer. So begins a persecution that has nothing to do with criminal justice. But what’s almost worse for Nan is that she now sees herself – and the woman who killed her daughter – in an entirely different way. But when clues begin to be left where she will find them, Nan realises that this small close community labours under a multitude of secrets and that she may be about to come just another of its victims.
River Road is such an atmospheric mystery and a compulsive read. From the very beginning we are drawn into a cold, snowy wintry world, populated by people who work together but still keep their distance. It’s also a small university community, full of writers and thinkers, isolated in some cases from the outside world in more ways than one. People keep to themselves, including Nan who has more reason than most to live quietly. Nan is a woman stricken by grief. She’s continued her life but she can never forget her daughter nor the woman who killed her. She also likes a drink and is being made to realise that she might be falling under its control.
Carol Goodman explores the mystery of what happened to Leia Dawson on that dark snowbound road but she also immerses us in the lives of the people that Leia knew, in particular Nan and the policeman who had tried to comfort her when her daughter was killed. We are taken deep within the secrets of the community, into the lives of the students and teachers, and what Nan discovers will change everything.
I was absolutely riveted to River Road. There was something about it that made me read it as soon as it arrived and I barely put it down once I started. The writing is gorgeous. Its sense of place is so strong and the characters are fascinating, so interesting, with so much depth to them. The mystery is a good one and it kept me intrigued throughout but I was as moved by the novel’s heart and emotion as I was entertained by its drama and tension. This is a confident, wonderfully written portrait of grief, love and sin, all set within the claustrophobic confines of a community sealed off from the world by snow and a frozen river. Nan is a fabulous character and I cared for her deeply. What a wonderful novel.