I was lucky enough to receive The Banks of Certain Rivers through a free book promotion for Cannonball Read. So I’ll start off with a big thank you to the author! It was a great read, and I’m thrilled that I’m going to be able to recommend the book.
The Banks of Certain Rivers is the story of Neil Kazenzakis. Neil’s wife, Wendy, fell into a permanent vegetative state after a devastating swimming pool accident. Neil and his son Chris have slowly been piecing their lives back together, only to have them shatter again via an social media scandal. When Neil, a physics teacher, attempts to break up an after school fight, footage of the event is caught on tape, however, this footage is doctored to make Neil appear as the aggressor. The fake video is soon uploaded to Youtube where the school district and local tabloids begin to take notice. Pretty soon national media outlets are knocking at Neil’s door; he’s being harassed in his home and labeled a child-beater. Only those closest to Neil, his next-door neighbor, Alan, his knocked-up girlfriend, Lauren, and his son, maintain his innocence.
Harrison’s story-telling is gimmick-free; his writing is simple and clean. While the subject matter of this book may be heavy for a Beach read, the writing flows at a pace that would make this book perfect for a car ride or lazy afternoon. The story is straightforward, the characters are likeable, and despite my best efforts, I was in tears by the end of the book. The ending of the book actually pulls some surprising emotional punches. When a primary character is in a coma, there are two easy ways to manipulate the emotion of the reader: pull the plug or wake them up. Harrison deals with the subject matter in a much more realistic way, and a much more mature way. Sometimes people who are in a coma stay in a coma, the important story is how those affected by tragedy can come to terms with its effects.
The Banks of Certain Rivers is an important novel. In our modern world, the consumer receives news so fast and from so many different sources that the responsibility falls upon our shoulders to filter what’s real, what’s doctored, and what’s manipulated. There is no one trusted news source, instead there’s a mass hive of information sources and the use of our own logic and reason to filter out the truth. The scandal that Neil finds himself in is what results when people spurn logic in favor of a mob mentality. Anyone who knew Neil, maintained their trust, but those on the outskirts of his life started to break away from the truth. This is why it’s important to keep grounded in the things that we know, to let our experiences and our memories define us rather than popular opinion. This is a lesson that Harrison’s work drives home again and again.
As much as I enjoyed the book, I’d be remiss if I did not mention the aspects of the book that didn’t quite work. All of the characters were likeable, and while that may sound like a good thing, it makes for a less realistic work. Not everyone is blessed with likeability, people are jerks, bullies, and cowards. Harrison has these kinds of people in his book, he just never delves into their stories. The primary characters mostly feel real, but you never get annoyed with them. If mistakes are made, apologies soon follow, and mistakes in judgement are soon corrected. It’s a pleasant universe, it’s just not a very real one. My biggest problems were with Neil’s neighbor, Alan, he’s just a little too sage-like, too kind, and too perfect-to-the-plot to be real. Or maybe this just speaks more to the company I keep than the quality of the writing.
One aspect of the plot I’ve neglected to mention up to this point is that of the sexting scandal that triggered the fight Neil was attempting to break up. What lends credence to the video of Neil attacking a young man, is that his “victim” was allegedly distributing pictures of one of Neil’s former students in a compromising position. Neil had social ties to this student and her family, so an added level of believability is lent to the video. As we reach the end of the novel, we learn that these photos were in a fact faked, however, I wish that Harrison had maintained that they were real. Given some recent very real news stories where girls have taken their own lives due to compromising photos reaching social media sites, this was a point where Harrison should have chosen to face an issue head-on. He touched on the subject matter, but not much discussion was offered other than, “that’s an awful thing.” Novels are a chance to add commentary to modern issues through the safe medium of fiction. Harrison frustratingly concludes that it all ended up being okay because the photos were faked; he takes the easy ending and leaves the important storytelling up to the next author who decides to tackle this subject matter.
I hope I didn’t get overly critical, because The Banks of Certain Rivers is great in so many ways. The emotional development of the characters is superb. The writing is solid. And even though I previously mentioned the likeability of the characters as a fault, sometimes it is nice to dive into a world where you get to like everyone. The ending is a slayer as well, definitely one worth sticking around for. The Banks of Certain Rivers is getting a lot of positive buzz around the internet, so I’m happy to see social media being used for the good of the book. Harrison has proved himself quite capable with his debut novel, I’m looking forward to reading whatever he has in store for us next.