“The River Mouth” by Karen Herbert plays out as a crime novel, but is just as much a social commentary about sexism, racism, and secrets. It’s dark and absorbing, and I found myself ruminating on it for some time after I’d finished it.
The story is told in two timelines, both rushing towards the same point: the murder of 15 year old Darren Davies.
In the present, it’s a decade after Darren was murdered, and his killer has never been found. But now his mother’s best friend, Barbara, has been found dead herself on a lonely track in the Pilbara.
DNA taken from her as part of the investigation is matched to DNA found under Darren’s fingernails after his murder. This discovery re-opens the investigation, and a number of things not revealed at the time of Darren’s death are jolted loose.
Ten years ago, it is a few weeks before Darren’s death. Something that happened back then caused his death. We follow him and his friends, trying to determine which things are significant, and which are just teens being teens. This timeline is narrated largely from the point of view of Colin, Barbara’s son and one of Darren’s closest friends.
The novel is told in a dry and slightly remote tone. This worked for me; rather than being immediately emotive, it gave a strong sense of emotions that run deep and long. Sandra is dealing with the grief of losing a son many years ago; it’s not the initial grief she has to deal with now, it’s the long haul. Her marriage broke down too, and that’s another kind of grief.
We know, of course, that the earlier timeline is leading inevitably to one horrific moment. And if you’re paying attention, you probably know who the killer is some time before Herbert explicitly reveals it. In some ways, though, the murder is not the point of the novel. Herbert also explores sexual assault and attitudes to it. She looks at the way small towns keep secrets and expose them, gossip and judge, ostracise people and yet are entwined with them. Much of it is quietly confronting.
This is the aspect of the novel I enjoyed most; the parts that quietly horrified me but also made me think.
Not all aspects of the crime angle really worked for me. For example, it’s not clear why the police place so much weight on the DNA under Darren’s fingernails; we learn early that there were witnesses to confirm Darren was shot from a distance and had no opportunity to fight his killer. It’s not clear why they take it as proof of who killed him.
Still, the converging timelines are both compelling, especially as the revelations begin to tumble out. While I found some elements of the investigation unconvincing, I was completely absorbed in Sandra’s feelings as new information comes to light. The two timelines also enable Herbert to show us things from both Sandra and Darren’s perspective; mother and son were seeing very different things. This is realistic and underlines more of Sandra’s sadness and regrets.
I really enjoyed this. It’s a novel that should make you stop and think. It’s a strong portrait of a woman dealing with lasting grief, and with how she herself has been changed. It gives a vivid impression of life in a smallish town. And the crime element, if not entirely successful, still kept me reading with interest.
Author: Karen Herbert
ISBN: 9 781760 990466
Copy courtesy of Fremantle Press (2021)
A selection of our Beauty and Lace Club Members are reading The River Mouth by Karen Herbert. You can read their comments below, or add your own review.
I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember, and I love sharing that joy.
I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember, across all genres. There’s not much I won’t at least try. I’ve been an enthusiastic book reviewer for years. I particularly enjoy discovering writers new to me, and sharing good writing with others.
My career has included time spent writing and editing technical documents, but it’s fiction that really moves me. I’ve reviewed for a number of different outlets over the years, and have been a judge in literary competitions.
I’m now raising little bookworms of my own, which brings a whole new kind of joy to sharing books.
More of my reviews can be found on my review blog www.otherdreamsotherlives.home.blog .