Long Bright River by Liz Moore is an unflinching look at the opioid crisis through a dark lens. None of the characters conform to the usual stereotypes. Cops aren’t always heroes (or villains); addicts aren’t always dangerous or hopeless. Everyone has secrets and people are seldom what they appear to be at first glance. In that way, it’s one of the most realistic novels I’ve ever read, and one of the most moving.
Michaela (but everyone calls her Mickey) and Kacey are sisters who grew up in the kind of family that does not put the ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunctional’. Their young mother dies of a heroin overdose and their father disappears shortly after in the throes of his own addiction. They are raised by their maternal grandmother Gee, who provides them with the bare minimum of food, shelter and clothing but even less love and emotional support.
The two sisters, even while living in the same Philadelphia neighborhood, take different paths in adulthood. Mickey becomes a cop; Kacey becomes a junkie. Their paths cross occasionally, mostly when Mickey runs across Kacey working as a prostitute to support her drug habit. They seldom speak but the sporadic and distant contact serves as a cold comfort to Mickey, who still feels the responsibility of being the big sister and the one who turned out “okay”.
Just as it becomes apparent that a serial killer is targeting women, Mickey realizes she hasn’t seen Kacey lately on her usual street corner. She tries to find out what’s happened to her, even as she flinches every time another unidentified young woman’s body is found. Along the way a fuller picture of the sisters’ background is parceled out in flashback chapters, complicating what first appeared to be a tragic but common story.
Just like real life, there is no unambiguously happy ending here. Mysteries are solved, story lines are wrapped up, but all of the resolutions seem tentative, capable of being undone with a single slip. All the characters can do — all any of us can do — is just the best we can, one day at a time.