Needles littering the floor, desperate addicts searching for a score, shuttered windows and crumbling homes; the opening picture author Liz Moore paints of Kensington conveys a relentlessly bleak and hopeless world. Moore’s new mystery thriller novel, “Long Bright River,” takes us into the underbelly of Philadelphia, into a once-respectable neighborhood now plagued by the opioid crisis. The sad reality of opioid addiction is a subject many authors shy away from in popular literature, but Moore digs deep without hesitation. In her new novel, Moore explores the harsh truth of addiction and weaves a gut-wrenching tale of familial devotion, poverty and crime.
Told in urgent and concise prose, “Long Bright River” follows the story of two sisters separated by circumstance. The older of the two, Mickey Fitzpatrick, is a police officer charged with the impossible task of curbing crime in Kensington. Her sister, Kacey, surrendered to the temptation of narcotics at a young age like her mother before her and now lives out her days on the streets, doing just about anything for a score. Though inseparable growing up, the two sisters are estranged because Kacey is unable to get clean. When a string of murders racks Kensington just as Kacey goes missing, Mickey, motivated by sisterly devotion and love, goes looking for her.
One of Moore’s clearest strengths is the deliberate and carefully measured manner in which she constructs the narrative. Moore expertly divulges just enough information in calculated increments to keep the reader hungry for more. The story is told from Mickey’s perspective on two alternating timelines, the girls’ childhood (“then”) and the present (“now”), where Mickey spends her days patrolling the streets with her irritating new partner Eddie Laffery. The beauty of this structure is the insight it offers into why Kacey is the way she is. We get to see young Kacey, a bubbly, fierce and passionate girl who “made friends every place she went” and who rose “ardently and often violently to the defense of those in her class who were lowest in the pecking order.” Comparing the bright teenage Kacey to the lifeless shell of a person that she becomes under the influence of drugs makes the emotional impact of her downfall all the more searing.
The novel starts off slowly, and at first it is hard to acclimate to Mickey’s reserved and often pessimistic personality. However, as events unfold and the story picks up, the book becomes almost impossible to put down. Each chapter brings new suspects and a surprising turn of events, leaving us grasping at straws until the very last pages. Mickey also blossoms into a three-dimensional character as the sacrifices she makes for her sister and son reveal the depth of her love for them. The reader is swept up in a gripping mystery, speculating alongside Mickey on who is responsible for the murders and why Kacey disappeared.
All of the elements of a good novel are there: suspense, love, tragedy and intrigue. But the most powerful characteristic of “Long Bright River” is its depiction of the endless cycle of addiction. It both humanizes the victims and provides a raw, unembellished perspective into horror and hopelessness of narcotic dependence. As Moore beautifully puts is, addicts are trapped “in a river, no fount and no outlet, a long bright river of departed souls.” At times, fighting addiction seems futile. Nevertheless, small rays of hope shine through as Mickey tirelessly fights for her sister. The lengths she goes to find Kacey are heartening and inspiring.
A lot of buzz surrounded the release of “Long Bright River” in the literary community, and, without a doubt, the addictive tale lives up to the hype. The novel could ensnare the heart of any reader in its roller coaster of emotions. The story is real, raw and heartfelt, and Mickey unfolds into a three-dimensional heroine before our eyes. It leaves the reader with a new perspective on addiction, the inevitability of it and the seemingly predestined fate of the addict. The novel also inspires sympathy for the victims, who, more often than not, turn to drugs as a result of environmental factors out of their control. We realize: It could be us, in other circumstances, in a parallel life. We avoided this wretched life through luck, because we didn’t have family members who pressured us into narcotic use or lived in an environment like Kensington where drugs are the norm. “Long Bright River” reminds us of the fragility of good fortune and to cherish what we have, because for some, even the simple act of experiencing life sober is a daily struggle.