A good location is like another character. An author that successfully brings that location to life, with the nuances and layers they would afford the human players in their story, can hook you in before you realize it.
Set in the village of Stollerton, in the forested Gatineau Hills area of rural Quebec, Canada, The River Bride, by Nadine Doolittle, offers such a setting. A river runs through town, providing a livelihood for residents. Locals travel it on boat as often as they take the roads, restaurants open on the river, fishing is plentiful, and tourists come and go, taking countryside tours and guided camping excursions. A hot summer arrives with a forest fire that smothers the area in smoke, even as firefighters are finally getting a handle on it. And in a remote, almost hidden campsite near the river, a young woman, Alvina Moon, working on her early career as a journalist for the local paper, comes across an old, abandoned trailer hiding bloody sheets inside.
Beyond just being an interesting setting, readers will find that, as they navigate the twists and turns of the story, the setting will play its part. It’s not just a colorful backdrop to create atmosphere. Events will take place on the river, and because of the river. Bad things will happen because of the high heat. Character choices will be influenced by history and the geography of the place. It’s not the conflict of man versus nature, though. The setting is ingrained into the characters, and that’s what makes it effective.
But there’s a lot of personal drama, too. This story is a psychological thriller, as much about unraveling relationships and desperate people as it is about revisiting an old mystery.
Small towns, out of the way from major civilization, are always ripe with possibilities for tragedy and intrigue. Everyone knows everyone else, everyone keeps secrets, and everyone suspects everyone else of keeping secrets. The author’s own website says of her mystery series, “No serial killers. No psychopaths. It’s the one you thought you knew.” The River Bride mines every last vein of drama and mystery in just such a fashion. Suspense hangs constantly in the air as the author peels back the masks each character wears.
Most of these character revelations are seen through the eyes of Alvina Moon. But she has her own demons to struggle with. The paper is closing thanks to the internet age finally catching up with the rural village and she has no idea where to go from there. Her roommate doesn’t like her much, her estranged parents never actually seem interested in her life, relationship prospects are nil, and when someone worthwhile finally comes into her life, he looks to be the entirely wrong person. No, it never seems to work out for Alvina Moon. She’s determined to make something work this time, and therein lies the crux of the story, the point from which everything will unfold.
With all of these psychological character complexities, there were a few times when I thought the author pulled back and I wanted her to go all out. The story revolves around betrayals and a brutal killing, the details of which directly affect the mindset of several characters. I appreciated that the author wasn’t graphic about it, but I do think the point could have been driven home even harder. The same is true with the main character, Alvina. Her choices make sense, even as I hoped she wouldn’t make them. But I thought the author could have dug further down into her thinking, to explain more fully what she hoped to gain by doing what she does.
That’s just me, though, others might not feel the same way. And anyway, it didn’t detract at all from my enjoyment of this well-written novel.