Book review: The River by Peter Heller
The River - Peter Heller
Without even having to read the biographical information, you can tell that Peter Heller has experience of outdoor activities: climbing, canoeing, fishing, camping, surviving in the wilds. It's not just that a love for nature that comes through in the writing, but an understanding of its rhythms, a respect for its power, its danger. That was evident in his most successful book to date The Dog Stars, a wonderfully refreshing humanist addition to the otherwise quite pessimistic post-apocalypse genre, focussing as it did on a Hemingway-esque exploration of man and nature, people in their surroundings, surviving, alert to danger; danger coming most often from other people.
You get a sense of similar unease very quickly in Heller's latest book, The River. Two friends, Jack and Wynn are on a canoeing trip along a Canadian river through a series of lakes that takes them out into Hudson Bay. The two young men share a love for the outdoor life, for self-sufficiency, but perhaps also because of some traumatic family experiences in their pasts they enjoy the remoteness from civilisation, a little pleasure that is increasingly hard to find. As such they haven't taken any phones with them. If anything happens, they're going to have to deal with it through their own initiative and skill. So there's an undercurrent there.
What is of immediate concern however is a large forest fire that is heading their way and could be with them in days, meaning that they have to get to a safe place, and the middle of a river, you might be surprised to discover, will not protect you from the flying embers and heat of a raging inferno that can jump from one shore to another. There's a different kind of unease however that Jack and Wynn experience however as they head for safety, an unease that comes with their encounters with a few other adventurers out on the river who they feel they ought to warn of the coming danger; a couple of loud-mouth drunks and a man and a woman who they don't see but can hear having a fight in a nearby camp.
Jack and Wynn don't hang around. They have developed a sense of where their might be trouble and are experienced and cautious canoeists. And trouble comes, but not from the wild. Or at least not initially, as that will inevitably be a problem they will encounter down the line. Heller knows the dangers out there in the wild and how quickly even a carefully managed expedition can spin out of control.
In a number of different ways The River then becomes a thriller, the two young men having to deal with a very human threat without truly understanding the nature of it, having to adapt and react quickly, the danger heightened and made all the more uncertain by the conditions of their environment. Being cut off from the rest of the world isn't just the usual crime twist, it's a vital component of Heller's exploration of how man reacts to life and death circumstances without having that safety net to fall back on, where one false move or one mistake can be fatal.
What Heller manages to do successfully in The River is bring all these elements together in a way that they feed into one another, informing and deepening the drama. The crime thriller element is fast moving and suspenseful, the looming threat of natural disaster on an incomprehensible scale adds another edge, but there's also time within this for the boys to reflect on their own lives, on troubles that they carry with them that could have a bearing on how they react to the immediate situation. Nature takes many forms, and it's not just the great wilds that Heller writes about so well, but the factors of life and nature that make us human; our relationships with families, friends and other people.