As someone who has to read a lot of books, sometimes many simultaneously, rarely does a book come along that grips me and doesn’t let go till the very end. The River At Night by Erica Ferencik is one such book.
Wini, Pia, Sandra and Rachel are forty-something friends with typically hectic urban lives. Ever since they became friends, they’ve been going to annual getaways to catch up with each other and unwind. This year, Pia, the most adventurous of the lot, has booked them a white-water rafting excursion on a remote river in Northern Maine. While the other girls are apprehensive about taking up such a high-risk trip, they eventually surrender to Pia’s buoyant reassurances.
Wini, who is our narrator, is long overdue for a vacation. She has been through the wringer lately – getting divorced after more than a decade-long marriage and losing her mute brother, whom she was very close to, to an overdose. When Pia first suggests that they should take up white water rafting, Wini specifically had reservations about the idea and even after they embark on the adventure, she can’t shake off a nagging foreboding. She would much rather spend her holiday exchanging gossip with the other women on a sunny beach. But Pia, with her infectious spirit, convinces her to spice up her bland life by going on this exhilarating trip.
All the characters are extremely well-drawn which is commendable since most thrillers tend to focus more on the action than on character development. Wini is depicted as a meek, exhausted middle-aged woman who loathes her job. Pia is a vivacious Amazonian marketing rep who tries to fight the boredom of her job by undertaking high-risk endeavours. She is an adrenaline junkie and as the ringleader of the group, persuades the other relatively demure women to accompany her on her adventures. Sandra is at crossroads in her life and Rachel is a recovering alcoholic.
One of the highlights of this book is the visceral, striking visual imagery that the writing evokes. I felt as if I was right there in the car with the women as they made their way from the urban scenery, replete with skyscrapers, to the unpredictable wilderness of the backwoods of Maine. “Green became the rule, man-made structures the exception.” Ferencik deftly captures the transition from city to country life with lucid passages:
“The woods on either side grew dense, impenetrable, alive with their own logic and intelligence. Mile upon mile unspooled before us with nothing man-made in view, no shotgun shacks, no stores, no nothing. The world of the forest dwarfed our strip of holed-out road. I sensed green-sprung life anxious to swallow it: imagined trees and plants breaking up the road as they burst through, erasing it as if it had never existed.”
The illustrative narration is especially effective in high-tension scenes when the women have to fight for their survival after a freak accident. The river does not spare them as it roars and rages, challenging them to defy its power. It makes one reflect on how nature both awes and terrifies us with its sheer majesty.
Another element that Ferencik portrays so well in this book is the complex dynamics of female friendships. Wini, Pia, Sandra and Rachel have been friends for over 15 years and now, almost middle-aged, they find that their bond has stood the test of time. It is one of the few constants in their tumultuous personal lives, something they cherish, and despite having had some squabbles in the past, in their own words their friendship is dysfunctional but unbreakable.
Wini talks about how she wishes that their contrasting personalities balanced each other out for the better: “Sandra’s tact and level head would temper Rachel’s sharp wit and knack for speaking the truth, regardless of the consequences. As for Pia – and I could only guess about the others – being with her made me feel buoyant, more robust somehow. In shape by proxy.”
There is a scene early on in the book when a quarrel breaks out between them after Pia makes an impulsive decision, which captures the intricacies of a long-time friendship. It is one of my favourite passages in the book as it realistically renders the low moments when during a conflict, friends tend to summon up long-buried transgressions and bad decisions of others to gain points in an argument.
The narrative is fast-paced in general but the second half particularly races at a frenetic pace, building to a gripping climax. There are many plot twists and even till the very end, the reader is not quite sure who is going to make it out alive.
Ferencik’s arresting writing brings the breathtaking scenery to life and her crisp, evocative prose makes sure that the readers’ attention never wavers. The River At Night is a well-crafted, compulsively readable novel that will enthral readers and offer them a riveting escape from reality.
The River at Night is published on the 12 January by Raven Books