Long Bright River
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Review: Long Bright River by Liz Moore

Summary of Long Bright River

“Mickey” is a thirty-something single mom working as a cop in Kensington, a community rocked by America’s opioid epidemic. Mickey and her sister Kacey grew up in an environment of rampant drug use, the children of an addict; their lives have forever been colored by the crisis. While Mickey found a path in police work, Kacey chased her own addiction to the streets, homeless and working as a prostitute. 

Each wanders Kensington in search of drugs—Mickey to fight against the crime they bring, Kacey to quell her addiction.

But then, Kacey disappears.

The more prostitutes start turning up dead, the more Mickey begins to worry about her sister. She begins delving into her strained familial relationships and often crossing the lines of her professional duties in the hopes to finding Kacey. Alternating between the sisters’ difficult pasts and Mickey’s mission to find her disappeared sister, the novel offers a glimpse into a community tight in the clutches of addiction.

It’s a novel of loss–the loss of a once-thriving community, the loss of family, the loss of oneself.

Review

“Cop books” generally aren’t my kind of books. 

I read for writing, not for plot. I love post-modernism and existentional exploration. Stereotypically, “police thrillers” are just that…thrillers. They are often written completely for the plot: fast-paced and easy dialogue. 

So I really wasn’t sure a police book following a potential serial killer was my kind of book. The only reason I gave it a shot is because I love complicated family dynamics. 

While Long Bright River definitely is not literary, it’s a great piece of general fiction with enough depth to keep the reader engaged.

The more I read, the more I loved it. The suspense of Mickey trying to find her sister when a killer is one the loose moves the plot along but the author doesn’t sacrifice the development of her characters for cheap thrills or dramatic action scenes. Most of the book is about Mickey’s past. The cast is dynamic, complicated, and struggling to make good choices in the face of high stakes and emotions. 

The relationship of the sisters, victims of the opioid epidemic, is convoluted and compelling. I was hooked by their stories and desperate to keep reading to understand how Mickey’s life had gone one way while Kacey’s had gone so far off in the other direction. 

The pacing and character development of the book was excellent! The author strategically weaves in shards of secrets and pieces of their pasts, allowing the reader to puzzle together Mickey’s life over time.

Moore certainly did her homework on this book and doesn’t use addiction as a plot device but rather the truly tragic wedge being driven between families, friends, and communities.

How Long Bright River is an “American” Story

Philadelphia
Photo by ActionVance on Unsplash

I appreciate that the author offers a glimpse into an epidemic still rocking the U.S. Living abroad, the opioid epidemic is one of the tragedies that generally only breaks into my life through Youtube documentaries and occasional news stories. 

It’s one that seems to be nowhere yet everywhere all at once. This summer, visiting my cousin in rural New York, we talked about this phenomenon. It can be easy to overlook how prevalent this issue is. In my daily life back in North Carolina, I am not directly exposed to drug addiction at all. But those who are affected and typically heavily affected. It’s everywhere– high schools, suburbs, working-class neighborhoods.

The book focuses on Kensington, Philadelphia and Moore’s sense of place is another reason I appreciated her novel so much.

I knew almost nothing about Kinsington before reading Long Bright River, but she does an excellent job describing how this community, populated with generations of local Philadelphian families, became a drug tourism spot for locals and non-locals alike. Apparently, it’s the place to grab an opioid fix (or a prostitute, thanks to the addicts willing to sell anything for their next hit). A recent video was circulated of someone just driving through Kensington, the sidewalks full of doped-up people.

Streets of Kensington, September 2021

It’s a sad fate for the community, and Moore is able to capture the heartbreak in a way that doesn’t feel contrived or condescending.

A Short Rant on American Healthcare

I’ve also been thinking about U.S. pharmacy culture and how easily doctors were handing out opioids like Tik Taks. Years ago, I took my prescription of Oxycontin when I had my wisdom teeth; after a few days, I remember thinking how little time it took for me to need to take two pills to get the same effect as one. 

I also remember how innocent it all felt. I felt relaxed and nice, but absolutely in control and normal. 

When I finished my prescription, that was that for me and opioids, but I could see how easily someone could become addicted. Tolerance seems to go up exponentially in a rapid time frame and I never felt in danger. That’s what seems to be so sinister about them–they start off feeling so innocent.

One of my friends even commented, “I could see how someone would want to just come home after a long and stressful day and just unwind by popping a few painkillers and never thinking anything of it.” 

But they aren’t innocent. They are HIGHLY addictive.

TedEd: The Opioid Epidemic

I have so many long-standing rants on American health care, but one of my issues with the U.S. healthcare system (and certain Western philosophies in general) is our obsession with ‘the quick fix.’ We don’t want to put in the long-term work, we just want to take away the pain through a pill.

This isn’t me being judgmental of the people in pain. I totally understand wanting a pill to fix something. When you hurt, and someone gives you a pill to make you not hurt, of course you will take it.

My issue is that the healthcare system is happy to oblige. Treat the symptoms, not the problem. Mental health, attention, obesity, pain, stress—here’s a pill. The end. So many doctors were happy to hand out opioids, and the pharmaceutical companies were happy to keep peddling pills.

And so many people trusted their doctors. They were never warned. And then the addictions took over.

Concluding Thoughts

As for Long Bright River, the characters in the book don’t develop addictions by doctor oversight. Rather, they have grown up in the shadow of addiction without many opportunities to escape the social pressures. But the medical aspect of the opioid epidemic is a particularly sinister one, as well as making in a particularly American problem. 

Overall, this was a very powerful read and I appreciate that the author made all her characters—everyone from the cops to the addicts to the prostitutes— relatable and human.

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