Four women, a terrifying whitewater rafting adventure and a desperate struggle for survival in the Maine wilderness, The River at Night is a thrilling read, as wild and twisting as the river it’s set on.
Win is almost forty, living at home with her cat in Boston, mourning the death of her brother and the loss of her marriage, when one of her three best friends, Pia, beckons her to join them on their regular summer adventure. This time though, Pia is up for a bigger challenge than usual – whitewater rafting on the wild and dangerous rapids of a river in northern Maine. There will be no phone or internet connection, no other people, just the four of them and their guide. Win is hesitant, but she’s stuck in a rut, working a tiresome job as a graphic designer at a food magazine where her relevance is eroded by the digital age and the rise of hip youngsters who know better, so on an impulse decides to give it a go.
After their long drive from Boston, the women arrive at the cabin for their big adventure to find that Pia’s chosen guide is twenty years old, blonde and dreadlocked, fit and gorgeous, but when he boasts of showing the river ‘who’s boss’, Win is skeptical and already her gut tells her something is wrong. ‘The brave, smart thing would have been to back out, gather my shit, and grab a bus home,’ she tells us, ominously.
But she keeps her mouth shut and goes ahead anyway and what happens next pits them all – Rachel, a recovering alcoholic and ER nurse; Pia the gorgeous, athletic alpha female; and beautiful Sandra, cancer survivor who has just made the momentous decision to leave her abusive husband – against the might of a wild river after a big rain. The women soon find themselves forced to fend for themselves in the wild, their supplies and raft gone. But it isn’t the bears and wolves they need to fear; out of the wilderness emerge even darker, more terrifying forces and things get much worse than they ever could have imagined.
The River at Night truly is a ‘weekend read’, in that as soon as you get into this book you can’t put it down. Once things go belly up, it’s compelling to watch how all these flawed but likeable women respond to life-threatening circumstances. Old friendship dynamics start to re-surface and their interactions flip from humorous to emotional to rancorous. Ferencik lays out their raw reactions with honesty and explores how different people react when faced with their own mortality. She also examines the differences between the wild and civilised worlds, and how, when faced with real danger, we soon put modern problems into perspective, with the women discovering what’s good about their ‘civilised’ lives.
It’s a book that transports us to a beautiful but harsh natural world with vivid descriptions of the Maine wilderness, and Ferencik splendidly captures the indifference of nature over man’s cares – “It just didn’t give a rat’s ass,” says Win. We couldn’t help but think of the movie Deliverance and Ferencik subtly credits this inspiration, by naming a town after James Dickey, author of the novel Deliverance (on which the creepy and unforgettable 1972 movie was based). It also reminded us of Cheryl Strayed’s biography Wild and even has echoes of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (thankfully the women behave better than English schoolboys).
Erica Ferencik is a Massachusetts-based novelist and screenwriter. She holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Boston University and has taught writing for years. Her essays have been featured in Salon, the Boston Globe and on National Public Radio.