Friday, March 20, 2009

Review: Mystic River

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
4.5 stars

Reasons for reading: Nick Hornby speaks highly of it in The Polysyllabic Spree; Anthony Award-winner for the Book Awards Challenge

Description: "When they were children, Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle were friends. But then a strange car drove up their street. One boy got in the car, two did not, and something terrible happened -- something that ended their friendship and changed all three boys forever. Twenty-five years later, Sean is a homicide detective. Jimmy is an ex-con. And Dave is trying to hold his marriage together and keep his demons at bay-demons that urge him to do horrific things. When Jimmy's daughter is found murdered, Sean is assigned to the case. His investigation brings him into serious conflict with Jimmy. And then there is Dave, who came home covered in someone else's blood the night Jimmy's daughter died. While Sean attempts to use the law to return peace and order to the neighborhood, Jimmy finds his need for vengeance pushing him ever closer to a moral abyss from which he won't be able to return."

First line: "When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them."

My thoughts: There is real craft to this novel. You think that Lehane has told you what happened right at the beginning, but he hasn't. Everything is revealed slowly through Dave, Sean and Jimmy's thoughts and actions and it's definitely not what was expected.

It took me a long time to get through Mystic River - not because I wasn't drawn into it, but because there are some creepy scenes - awful things happen. I normally read before bed but found I had weird dreams after reading this one, so I had to stop. It's a very intense book.

The Flats neighbourhood of Boston is as much of a character as the three men - it's working-class, it's not always pretty, but the people who live there consider themselves natives of the place, it's very much their home. Part of Dave's struggle is that he was taken away from the neighbourhood in that car and the boy who returned no longer fit in. Jimmy's criminal nickname was Jimmy Flats - he's a fixture in the neighbourhood and he loves it. Sean is also an outsider, although a fairly well-tolerated one. He grew up in the slightly wealthier Point neighbourhood and as a college-educated state trooper, he's still "above" the Flats, though he's cautiously tolerated, it seems.

All of the characters are complex, especially Jimmy - a brilliant ex-con who seems to have become a devoted father and husband and a quiet shop owner. Dave tries hard to keep his demons at bay, but he's not always successful. And Sean has a derailed marriage, largely due to his "cop's ego" which seems to have been in place somewhat since childhood.

The verdict: A grisly, powerful novel about more than a brutal crime. It's also about family, love, community, and the effects of the past on the present.

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