“Long Bright River,” Riverhead Books, by Liz Moore The complicated relationship of two estranged sisters who choose different life paths persuasively works as a metaphor for their old neighborhood that is in transition. Deftly plotted with strong, vivid characters, Liz Moore’s outstanding “Long Bright River” works as solid crime fiction and an intense family thriller.
A street officer for the Philadelphia Police Department, Mickey Fitzpatrick patrols the Kensington neighborhood, an area once solidly middle class. A “rapid economic decline” has left it overrun with addicts, prostitutes, the homeless and shuttered businesses and houses. Mickey, a single mother, refuses to allow her rough upbringing influence her parenting decisions as she also deals with the police department’s sexism and office politics. Her younger sister Kacey has succumbed to opioid addition, working occasionally as a prostitute. Often, Mickey has had to arrest Kacey, adding to the sisters’ animosity.
In their own way, the sisters still care about each other. Mickey knows about Kacey’s activities from the local merchants and street people. Mickey’s concerns kick into high gear when Kacey disappears in the wake of several murders of other young women in Kensington. Mickey uses her training as a beat cop to try to find the killer, fearing that Kacey may already be a victim.
Moore skillfully explores the sisters’ bond from their closeness during their toxic upbringing to the decay of their relationship that seems almost irreparable. The chapters “Then” and “Now” alternate from their childhood and young adult years to the present. Their mother died of a drug overdose, and drugs eventually claimed their father. They lived with their maternal grandmother, who, at best, was unloving and often given to bouts of mental and verbal cruelty. Moore delves deeply to illustrate how the sisters’ lives parallel what is happening in the neighborhood and how it is trying to rise above the morass that surrounds it. As the main narrator, Mickey quickly emerges as an effective, appealing character determined to do better by her child and to succeed in life. The sweet scenes of Mickey with her son contrast to the street life that she witnesses daily. She has based her life on “decisions, not chance.” Her intense need for privacy also has made her stubborn about how she reacts to others and causes her to make mistakes. Although she takes risks, her intense intelligence and knowledge about how quickly a person can be dragged down by the street elevate her. Her determination to succeed as a cop is often in conflict with her naivete about office politics. The clever plot and involving characters of “Long Bright River” set a high standard for this new year.