Book Review: Wicked River
Tuesday, May 1, 2018 at 11:06AM
Windy City Reviews

Wicked River. Jenny Milchman. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, May 2, 2018, Hardcover, Trade Paperback, and E-book, 464 pages. 

Reviewed by Caryl Barnes.

Wicked River by Jenny Milchman is a high-stakes literary thriller involving three main characters: Natalie and Doug, naive newlyweds on a backwoods canoe honeymoon, and Kurt, a murderer with stunning wilderness skills. Through a series of misadventures, partly caused by Doug’s betrayal of his new bride, the pair become lost without supplies and almost die. Kurt, who has created a solitary nest in the Adirondacks three years after his commune fell apart, may be the most desperately lonely character I’ve ever met. All he wants is to trap one or more people and keep them in his backwoods camp for life. Like his psychiatrist parents before him, Kurt does not seek a relationship with those he entraps; like them, he craves living material to cram into his bottomless lack of an identity, a soul.

While Kurt is fascinating and weird, Natalie and Doug are much more ordinary. It was Doug’s idea to take his bride into the wilderness, an adventure for which she was ill-prepared. Because both accepted that Doug was in charge, Natalie agreed. Neither one of them knew themselves very well nor did they understand how superficial their relationship was. Through their numerous harrowing adventures, they began to trust and help each other despite Natalie’s horror after learning of the crimes Doug had hidden from her. Kurt not only saved their lives before his murderous intent became clear, but he also saved their marriage. Had they not become honest with themselves and each other in their dire circumstances, their marriage would have ended before it really got started.

I can’t say enough good things about Milchman’s complex and riveting main plot, the depth of her main characters, and her superb depiction of the wilderness. However, a long subplot involving Natalie’s niece, Mia, was unnecessary and not very interesting. Because I admired Wicked River, I reread the book to see if Mia was in any way necessary to the plot or character development. I thought I had maybe missed something crucial. I don’t think I did; it feels like the Mia story—of an adolescent growing up—is the skeleton of a different book. A second subplot about Doug’s sidekicks since childhood was integral to the main plot but I learned both too much and too little about them, more than I needed to know but not enough to care about them.

Milchman is a good writer. Some of her language is wonderful. When Natalie swims alone at night and a shot rings out, her “heart began to throb, she felt it cast waves through the water, turning the entire river into one great, beating drum.” Sometimes she is terse to good effect. After someone with a gun chases them, Doug and Natalie panic, drop everything, and race miles away from the trail. Milchman intones: “No food, water, maps, or gear.” Chilling.

Skilled as she is, Milchman could benefit from tighter editing. A writing teacher once told me that part of the cost of being a writer is eliminating your “darlings,” meaning the metaphors you think are beyond wonderful. After calling the woods an “ivory forest,” an inaccurate description of verdant summer forests, the author describes “the stalks of the trees” which “shone like tusks in the sunlight” and then added that it looked “as if moonbeams had planted themselves in the earth.” That’s just too fancy. 

Milchman has published three previous books. I plan to read more of her. I recommend Wicked Riveras a good summer read.


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