Perfume River is an elegant, poignant, and masterful novel, dealing with war and it’s human consequences. In the tradition of the ‘great American novel’ it bears comparison with the work of Roth, De Lillo et al. [It} is a family saga spanning half a century in the lives of the Quinlan’s under the shadow of the Vietnam war. Nothing is as it seems on the surface, the incident at the Perfume River (beautiful name), is the heart of darkness for Robert and a pivotal moment in the narrative. History is not the past but perception of the past, distinct to each character. The epic origin of the novel is the century defining Vietnam war and it’s profound influence on the Quinlan clan: dogmatic patriarch William, (WWII veteran) and his 2 sons Robert (Vietnam soldier) and Jimmy (conscientious objector – draft dodger?). Also a strong cast of women under the shadow of the past.
Robert’s small kindness for a homeless man Bob (vet?) has a devastating impact on the family. William’s death dominates the present but memory is the key to the novel – lines are drawn, bonds forged, and fractures opened. Memory is heavy with self delusion, untold feelings and hidden truths that colour relationships. There is a dark intensity to this very personal study of family set against the toll of time and unyielding posturing. Ultimately there is truth if not redemption and reconciliation. I expect this literary novel to stay with me for a long time.
I had previously read Olen Butler’s ‘Kit’ Marlowe Cobb mysteries, ‘The Hot Country’ (14), ‘The Star of Istanbul’ (15), and ‘The Empire of Night’s (15) [all published by No Exit Press], enjoying these thrillers but Perfume River is a literary novel and must be one of the best books of the year. Highly recommended.
Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler, published by No Exit Press on 10 November, 2016 in hardback at £14.99
Reviewed for Real Readers