It’s a rare talent that can begin a story with its tragic conclusion and tell it so engrossingly that the reader is nevertheless shocked to arrive once again at the ending. Charles Roe displays such talent in his fourth novel, Barren River, a gripping tale of friendship, betrayal, love, and loss set in the cave country of southern Kentucky.
The story opens with a coroner’s inquest into the death of Morgan Hargett, who met his end while exploring a cave with his best friend Arnie Travers. After being trapped in the cave for hours, Arnie found a way out and returned, too late, with help. Suspicion falls on the survivor in the minds of some, but the jury eventually decides that the death was accidental. Intent on retribution, Morgan’s widow then takes matters into her own hands, plunging the town of Greenfield back into incredulous grief.
After this prologue the narrative shifts to the ill-fated caving excursion, which serves as a backdrop for all but the final chapter of the novel. From the outset there are signs that things will not turn out well: a forgotten rope, a slipped knot, a foothold that gives way. Prepared and provisioned only for a brief scouting foray, Morgan and Arnie find themselves on a full-blown expedition to secure their very survival.
The taut description of their underground ordeal is punctuated by flashbacks to events from the months leading up to the calamitous venture. Morgan and Arnie consider what has happened between them during that time, and between each of them and Verna, Morgan’s wife, and Fern, Arnie’s new love interest. The cave, with its treacherous terrain and disorienting darkness, is eerily analogous to the confusing landscape of human relationships in which the two men find themselves.
As the narrative unfolds within the cave and without, the mystery deepens: what actually took place between them in the chill blackness, and how did Morgan die? The gravity of the situation forces the trapped men to grapple with their inner demons, and each makes choices that ultimately and inadvertently bring tragedy down upon them both.
Barren River has elements of romance, intrigue, mystery, and morality, but as a whole it is a nuanced exploration of the unraveling of the human heart under the quiet frictions of daily living as well as the pressure of extreme circumstances. The principal characters’ joys and struggles are universal and familiar, and the rural small town setting creates an intimacy that deepens their poignancy. Most pleasing of all, it is a tale so well told that the reader is taken as unawares as the characters by the final act of shattering violence foretold in the prologue.
Barren River by Charles L. Roe © 2008 (AuthorHouse) ISBN: 978-1434376343 248 pages Paperback $9.95 (US) www.authorhouse.com/bookstore