High school teacher Neil Kazenzakis is having a rough time. His wife has been severely disabled in an accident, and now lies in a coma, his girlfriend Lauren is pushing him to commit, his son Christopher doesn’t know about Lauren yet, and to top it all off, he’s just been implicated in an act of violence against a student. There’s a mystery to be solved in Jon Harrison’s debut novel The Banks of Certain Rivers — who on earth would take the trouble to frame a teacher for assault? — but it’s above all a family drama, and a rather touching one.
Harrison does a good job pulling his readers in. The two major plot points — how can Neil tell Christopher about Lauren and how can Neil prove his innocence in the altercation — are compelling, and Harrison’s characters are so well-developed they feel real, and so we as readers feel invested in what happens to them. The novel deals a lot with grief as well, and in such a lovely, subtle way. I really liked Neil’s emails to his wife, as he tells her how his life is going, and the realization that these emails may never be read is heartbreaking.
There are a couple weaknesses with the novel. First, even though the wife’s accident was depicted in the first chapter, the story immediately picks up in the present day without explaining exactly what had happened to the wife. If not for the book blurb stating she was alive and “profoundly disabled,” I would have thought that she’d died. As it was, for the longest time, I thought she was in the bedroom the entire time, unable to leave because of a disability. As well, the resolution of the mystery regarding the video evidence of Neil’s assault on a student was far too abrupt. I wish Harrison had integrated it better into the story; as it was, the solution just seemed random, and while the characters explained why it made sense, it still seemed unrealistic to me. A solution placed for the sake of having one.
Finally, a certain theme central to the relationship between father and son, and a large part of the major rift later on in the book, may have been hinted at but never really explored. Neil’s grief at his wife’s accident was certainly covered, but the specifics of how he handled it were left vague, until a climactic moment later on. Given the enormity of this revelation, as well as its implications on other parts of the story, I wish Harrison had, again, integrated it better into the novel throughout.
That being said, The Banks of Certain Rivers is a strong novel, definitely worth more than the $2.99 Kindle price on Amazon.ca. I was drawn in to Neil’s story, and ended up reading it in a single afternoon. Harrison has a gift for making characters feel real, and as we get to know Neil, we can’t help feeling invested in his story.
UPDATED: The Banks of Certain Rivers has recently been picked up by another publisher, and is now available in paperback format. Click on the book cover below to see it on Amazon.
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.