from the editor's desk

Review of ‘The River Mouth’ by Karen Herbert

Herbert, Karen. The River Mouth. Fremantle Press, 2021. RRP: $32.99, 256pp, ISBN: 9781760990466.

Jen Bowden

It feels like a luxury these days to read a crime novel that makes little to no use of gratuitously violent scenes and instead uses a slow unravelling of plot and character to thrill the reader.

The body count in Karen Herbert’s debut novel, The River Mouth, is minimal for a crime thriller and gory detail is given over in favour of small, unexpected twists that you could easily miss if you weren’t paying attention. This pacy, mysterious novel unravels in a swirl of gossip, unreliable narrators and the understanding that sometimes the thing we imagine to be terrible and frightening actually has a very simple but tragic explanation.

The premise seems simple, but in Herbert’s capable hands it is anything but. Ten years ago, fifteen-year-old Darren Davies was murdered by an unidentified gunman who has never been caught, his body left facedown in the Weymouth River after a single bullet to the chest. Fast-forward to the present day and his mother, Sandra, gets a visit from the local police telling her that her best friend, Barbara, has been found dead on a remote Pilbara road. Barbara’s DNA matches the DNA under Darren’s fingernails. As the investigation into Darren’s death is reopened, it unleashes a twisting tale of revelations that finally show the truth behind this crime and others in the community.

One of the most impressive things about this book is the way Herbert doesn’t follow a standard ‘whodunnit’ narrative, and instead reveals tiny, seemingly insignificant details throughout the story that eventually build to the big reveal. The community is a character in itself, close-knit, with everyone knowing something about each other. Their shared history makes every interaction more personal, more connected, which means the final reveal is all the more shocking.

Sandra realises she knows one of the officers from high school. He was in the year above her and played in the school football team. As a teenager he’d matured early, she remembers, and came back from the summer holidays in year ten with a man’s thighs and a head taller than his classmates. (13)

Sandra’s observation of the policeman is detailed and intimate, a strategy used by Herbert throughout; little pieces of knowledge are unveiled through characters’ observations of each other, enriching the narrative and adding to that slow build.

Despite this seemingly intimate knowledge, Herbert still characterises her community as only really scratching the surface of understanding when it comes to knowing the truth about each other. The whole narrative is built on the premise that while the characters in this book understand and know each other on a superficial level, they don’t know enough for it to be clear who has killed whom, or who is telling the truth. When Sandra is on her way to the hairdresser’s she muses,

Teresa and Barbara didn’t socialise together, but Teresa also did Barbara’s hair and knew Barbara and Sandra had been close since the kids were born. She will be able to tell her what people are saying about the DNA results. Sandra assumes it’s common knowledge. (140)

Just like Sandra, the reader also finds out information about the investigation through gossip, overheard conversations and the perspectives of the characters through which the story unfolds. Sandra and Colin, Darren’s friend and Barbara’s son, are the two main narrators and it is their versions of the truth that dominate. By bringing us into the community through making us privy to gossip and speculation, Herbert shows the reader the complicity of the whole community in these events. As the narrative unfolds it is revealed that everyone seemingly had a part to play in the events that lead to the climax, leaving us wondering who and what can be trusted.

Sandra isn’t a particularly reliable narrator. There are a number of instances where she reveals snippets of information that she’s previously claimed not to remember, or directly contradicts something she has told one of the other characters. The result is an interesting consideration of how fallible our memory of certain events—particularly traumatic ones—can be, and how we often change the narrative to protect ourselves from something we consider evil or horrible. Sandra’s now estranged husband Greg was originally a suspect in Darren’s murder, but even Sandra doesn’t know the truth of whether he was involved. Her understanding of Greg’s role in the events of that day is only gleaned through the narrative Greg supplies to the court.

She gathers the bundle marked Greg into her lap and pulls off the bulldog clip holding them together. The first pages are her notes on Greg’s testimony, given at this inquest. They confirm what she remembers. (59)

This point about Sandra confirming a memory through notes that she has made during a traumatic event raises questions about how much we can trust her as the narrator of this tale. She has a constant need to confirm her own opinions and memories, which makes this novel even more unsettling.

The River Mouth is more than just a slick thriller; it’s an exploration of the fallacy of the human mind, the impact of trauma, and how a whole community can be complicit in a devastating act, even if they don’t realise it. Set aside a good chunk of time to read this one, because once you’ve started you won’t want to stop.

Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The ListThe Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.

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