Rating: 5 stars
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Benjamin Edward Green is grieving. Still. He lost his father, “Big Eddie,” five years ago and his life is a constant reminder of him. When Big Eddie drowned in the river after his car ran off the bridge at mile marker 77, 16-year-old Benji felt his life collapse. The Trio, his three aunts, Christie, Mary, and Nina, arrived to put the pieces of their ruined lives back together and hold them in place until both Benji and his mother could continue to go through the motions as a matter of survival. But life was never the same.
Lola, Benji’s mother, forced him to attend college when he graduated, but he only stayed long enough to placate his mother before he returned to Roseland and took over his father’s gas station. He lives in Little House, a..well…little house that Benji helped build with his father before he died. His mother and aunts live in Big House, just down the street, where Lola’s thriving bakery business keeps her, if not happy, then at least busy.
Then one day, a man falls from the sky. It’s beyond impossible (and improbable), but Benji can’t deny the very real presence of this hulking red-headed man who has suddenly appeared from nowhere. He calls himself Calliel, and he claims to be a guardian angel who has been protecting the town of Roseland for 200 years. He’s been pulled from the sky by Benji’s unknowing pleas for help, and now Benji doesn’t know what to do with him. Cal follows him around like a big, overeager angel puppy, and Benji has to come to terms with what Cal’s presence means, what his role was in Big Eddie’s death, and how Benji will deal with these intense feelings he has for a being who’s not human, but whose feelings for Benji are not entirely angelic either.
Let’s not forget to add a little intrigue and mystery in as well. This is, after all, an epic novel of about a million pages (or really, 400). Benji has never been convinced that his father’s death was an accident, and evidence to the contrary starts being uncovered. There is scandal lurking within the small town of Roseland, and once Benji starts digging into his father’s death, it becomes an even more dangerous place. With his guardian angel by his side, Benji tries to seek closure for his father’s death by solving the mystery of the murder of Big Eddie, led by the clues from his nightmares.
This is, at its core, a love story between a father and a son. Big Eddie is universally adored, but never more so than by his son, Benji. Says Benji:
Big Eddie is strong and brave. He’s the biggest man in all the world. He is the smartest, the funniest, greatest man alive. He’s the reason the sun shines in the sky, the reason the stars come out at night. He is the greatest man in the world because he is my father, and I can see him no other way.
Big Eddie’s death has left such a devastating hole in Benji’s heart quite simply because he loved him with every part of himself. He was his best friend. He was always there for him. When Benji tentatively came out to his father with “I think I might…be…you know. Gay. Or whatever,” Big Eddie wrapped him up in his arms and assured him that he loved him unconditionally. The man did everything for his family, and his son was his pride and joy. So it comes as no surprise that the grief over his father’s death is quietly consuming Benji.
Beyond the love between a son and father, this novel is about grief. It’s possibly the most intensely involved book I’ve read about the devastating effects of grief on those who are left behind. It’s in every aspect of this book. It’s in the people of the town, who wear the sadness of Big Eddie’s passing almost as strongly as his family. It’s in the mood of the book, as the town is constantly assaulted by pouring rain. And the river. The river, a symbol that is as central to the book as the characters of Benji and Big Eddie. It holds the answers to the mystery of his father’s death. It calls Benji to it every night in his dreams. It almost kills him. It is big and blue and fast and dangerous and it will either destroy Benji or heal him. It starts as a symbol of devastation, and it ends as a symbol of sacrifice and hope and love.
Even though I could wax poetic about all of the things this book is, I think the true beauty of Klune’s crowning achievement lies in all the things this book isn’t. I’m a fan of TJ Klune, and have read everything he’s written, so I’m aware that he can be a bit…much. He’s ridiculously caustic and funny and loves words and loves stuff and things and likes to put them all into pages and pages of oftentimes brilliant novels. But here, in Into This River I Drown, there is hardly a glimpse into that style of writing. It has a bit of the sweetness and passion and humor that Klune is known for, as well as a sprinkling of the insane smartness of his imaginative brain, but this book is relatively simple. It’s understated. And yes, I understand the irony in me calling his book about angels as such, but there is nary a child genius or amputee to be found in its pages.
I would’ve preferred that Klune stay a little more grounded in this novel, without bringing in the Elementals and Seven and Felix and incorporating the world of Burn, but I’ll forgive him for that. This book made me feel and it made me think and I know I’ll ponder for days about sacrifice and love and free will and the role of heaven and God and how we fit into this big crazy world. I told you, this book is epic. And for that, I can highly recommend this novel to anyone who breathes and thinks and has eyes and can read. The rest of you will hate it, but for those I just mentioned (you know, essentially mankind), I have no doubt you will find it as fascinating as I did.