Peter Heller's experience as an outdoorsman and adventure journalist is on stunning display in The River, a sure-handed combination of the brutal wilderness writing and masterful character insight he demonstrated in 2017's Celine. Jack and Wynn are like brothers, bonded over their love of mountains and books. On break from Dartmouth, they decide to paddle and portage a string of lakes in Manitoba, Canada. The serenity of canoeing, fishing and paperbacks over a campfire transforms into urgency when they spot a raging wildfire headed their way.
Safety is an increased-paddling-pace away--until a man they'd previously heard arguing with a woman shows up at their camp. Bloodied, rattled and armed, he claims his wife is missing. Jack and Wynn make a time-eating trip upstream to look for her and end up doubting the man's story and fearing further for their well-being. On the run from a killer fire, inclement weather, waning provisions and a man whose motives they mistrust, Jack and Wynn will need every iota of their wilderness savvy to survive.
Heller's writing is as appealing as ever. His knowledge of nature and the elements takes a leading role that is technical but not overwhelming. Despite the stirring turn from sheer joy to menace, particularly through the looming fire's impact on flora and fauna, the prose is never rushed or frantic. Character is still the heart of The River, as core differences in the men's responses to the dangers and ideas about how to proceed amplify the tension and tragedy. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review