A family saga meets hard-nosed police procedural, Long Bright River, by Philly novelist Liz Moore, examines Philadelphia’s opioid crisis through the story of two sisters with divergent lives.
Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a single mother and police officer who patrols Kensington, where she and her younger sister Kacey grew up. Kacey is a sex worker who lives on the streets of Kensington; she has struggled with opioid addiction since adolescence. The two have not spoken in five years. But Kacey goes missing as a serial killer targets local women who are living with addiction. Mickey finds herself pulled back not only into her sister’s life, but the troubled extended family from whom Mickey has distanced herself.
A lead role for Kensington
Moore offers a rich, meticulous, deeply empathetic view of Kensington, a neighborhood where she has volunteered as a writing teacher for several years. She begins with a detailed overview of Kensington’s history and present as a hub of the drug trade on the cusp of gentrification. She sets it up as the lead role in an expansive cast of Philadelphia neighborhoods and their surrounding suburbs, including Mount Airy, South Philly, and Bensalem. This is Moore’s fourth book, but her first to be set in Philadelphia. She immerses us in the city and its rhythms—though as a new resident, I wish that I had read the book with a map.
The mystery driving the novel is not only who is killing the women of Kensington, but the history of Mickey and Kacey’s estrangement. Moore separates the narrative into “Then” and “Now,” both of which are narrated by Mickey, who is not so much unreliable as she is withholding. In a terse, almost reportorial voice, Mickey slowly parcels out information about herself, her family, and her past. With good reason, we learn, Mickey trusts no one in her life, including her readers. This slow build gives Long Bright River a deeply compelling sense of momentum as every sojourn back to “Then” reveals a deeper, and often surprising, layer of Mickey and her past.
This past focuses on her childhood in the Fitzpatrick family, who are victims and survivors of a deleterious cycle of poverty, addiction, and pain. In Mickey and her family, we see the consequences of a system that fails you so many times that you stop trying—to grow, to stay off drugs, even to love. As their flinty grandmother Gee, who raised them after their parents succumbed to their own addictions, repeatedly tells Mickey and Kacey, “The world is a hard place.”
Women in the world
And in Long Bright River women bear the brunt of this hard world. Though the mystery of the murdered women is secondary to the story of the Fitzpatricks (and starts to run out of steam in the last quarter of the novel) it still accomplishes what it is meant to do by placing Mickey and Kacey in the context of a larger world. They are only two members of a larger community of women who are exploited and silenced by the very institutions meant to protect them—yet they continually fight to survive and care for themselves and one another.
What, When, Where
Long Bright River. By Liz Moore. New York: Riverhead Books, January 7, 2020. 496 pages, hardcover. $26.00. Read more.