Liz Moore’s latest accomplishment, Long Bright River, begins with a list. Though it’s never made explicit what, exactly, it’s a list of, it is nevertheless clear: this is a catalog of the dead. It’s a powerful way to begin an exquisite novel that dug its fingers into my heart and has refused to let go.
Its first-person narrator, Mickey Fitzpatrick, is a beat cop in Philadelphia’s drug-ravaged Kensington neighborhood. She’s just been assigned a new partner she’s not sure about—he’s self-obsessed and judgmental of many of the people in their district they’re supposed to police and protect—when two things occur that will shake Mickey from her quiet, staid existence forever: a series of murders on low-income women strikes her precinct, and her younger sister Kacey, a sex worker and opioid addict, goes missing. The rest of the novel jumps back and forth between Mickey’s growing obsession related to the murders and her sister’s disappearance, a fixation that threatens to uproot the stability of Mickey and her toddler son’s life, and her adolescence being raised with her sister by their grandmother after their parents die from addiction.
A gathering in a church: tiny, subdued. Gee sinking down in the pew. Gee grabbing Kacey’s arm to stop her making noise. Our father, on the other side of us, useless. Silent. A gathering at our house. A great sense of shame. The knees and the thighs and the shoes and the suit jackets of adults. The rustle of fabric. No children. No cousins. The cousins kept away. A long winter. Absence. Absence. People forgetting us, forgetting to talk to us. People forgetting to hold us. People forgetting to bathe us. To feed us.
… All of these memories are fading, now. These days, I bring forth each one only sparingly, and then place it carefully back in its drawer.
Moore is doing so many masterful things here that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Her language—Mickey’s narration—is stiff and distant, communicating to the reader that Mickey is emotionally repressed and pre-occupied with propriety. Instead of quotation marks, dialogue is indicated with an m-dash, which distances the reader from how they’re accustomed to reading dialogue and indicates further remove between Mickey’s experience and her retelling. Even once the story is concluded and she’s looking back on it, she remains unsure, aloof, afraid to jump in fully lest her heart sustain further damage.
None of this means Long Bright River doesn’t land, hard. It does. Moore has painted a heartbreaking portrait of a city besieged by addiction; she critically depicts how power structures fail its most vulnerable residents while remaining empathetic to the people caught up in its web.
I finished this novel shaken, both by its sheer emotional resonance and also because of how clear and familiar so much of what Moore describes feels to me. The dim, airless rooms where addicts congregate. The way they struggle to support each other, cheer each other along on short-lived and desperate flirtations with sobriety, their presence subtly or not-so-subtly encouraging the road back to drugs. How parents fight, often fruitlessly, against the drug they’re beholden to despite their immense love for their own children.
Moore’s clear vision of fractured Philadelphia is almost startling, given how different in setting it is from her previous novel, The Unseen World, which takes place in rarefied academic Boston (I loved it). Either Moore is intimately familiar with this particular side of Philadelphia or she is a very, very good researcher. Despite their surface differences, each novel flawlessly confronts how family binds are weakened by secrets and laced with lies; both examine how our parents and caregivers, out of love and fear and selfishness, tear us down as they build us up.