Book Review: Bleak Harbor by Bryan Gruley

Bleak Harbor

Bryan Gruley

December 1, 2018

In Bleak Harbor by Bryan Gruley, on the day before a much-awaited and equally chaotic lakeside festival, Danny Peters, the youngest member of the town’s founding family, disappears.

Bryan Gruley’s Bleak Harbor is an elaborate, intricately plotted novel that pulls the best elements of crime fiction, thrillers, and mysteries into a dreary, tense narrative that explores the power of secrets through the lens of a single family whose name defines an entire town. Despite having a plethora of characters, multiple converging storylines, and coming in at 378 pages, the pace, action sequences, and anxiety that permeates the story, this hefty novel is easy to read and is never bogged down by excessive detail nor does it ever stray far from the kidnapping at its core.

It’s summer, and that means Bleak Harbor is packed with tourists, boats, and drunk crowds, most of them on their way to or from the Dragonfly Festival. Danny Peters, the sole grandson of the town’s deceased founder, observes it all quietly. He is autistic and obsessed with dragonflies. Unfortunately, Danny disappears from his house while the festival is in full swing. Her mother, Carey, and stepfather, Pete, receive a photo of the boy, tied to a chair and sporting a fresh bruise on his face. They obviously panic and fear for Danny, and the threatening text messages they keep receiving do not help. They should contact the authorities immediately, give them every bit of information they have, and try their best to help them find their son, but they can’t. Carey and Pete are hiding huge secrets that they’d rather not divulge. This complicates matters and makes them even more desperate. As pressure from their private dealings and the kidnapper mount, the couple is forced to face their private demons while also dealing with the police. What follows is a taut thriller where money plays a major role, crime is an integral part of most businesses, and not all is as it appears.

Gruley does many things well in this novel, and the first one is atmosphere. Readers can sense Bleak Harbor and know its history. They can see the water and festivalgoers, but most importantly, they can sense the tension between Carey and Peter as well as the way each new revelation affects everyone involved in the case. The fear, anger, and anxiety are alive in every page, and that keeps readers turning pages.

Learn more about Bleak Harbor with our exclusive Q&A with Bryan Gruley

The second element that merits attention is the way Gruley brings together a plethora of stories from the past and present into a single narrative. The history attached to the Bleak name is long and dark. The current things and people Carey and Pete are involved in are dangerous. The way Danny has suffered for a variety of reasons and the way he’s been judged and treated because of his condition. All these things and many more collide in this story, and every one of them gets a chance to occupy the spotlight in a way that prevents any of them to overpower the others. Bleak Harbor is a place of secrets, a town built on lies by a family haunted by ghosts bigger than their mansions.

Lastly, there is the writing itself. The author maintains a perfect balance between passages of extreme emotional grit and violence and passages filled with bleak poetry that celebrate the space in which the story takes places. In that regard, this is one of those rare crime novels that, besides belonging to more than one genre, flirts with literary fiction without ever becoming pretentious:

She lowers her phone and pierces through the dark skeleton of the festival Ferris wheel half a block away, lifts her view to the bars along the beach, the misty glow of the phony streetlamps, then beyond to the bay and the haphazard silhouettes of the masts, the stray blinking cruisers and speed boats anchored there, their sloshed occupants making the last feeble noises of the festival’s first day.

Bleak Harbor is many things. It is a deconstruction of the myth of the happy family that shows that extreme wealth and love and happiness are very different things. It is a book willing to redefine the way autism is treated in fiction. It is a tale that gives a glimpse into the possibilities the world of computers offers those who learn how to act in it free of punishment. It is a narrative that explores the lengths to which people will go in order to save face and maintain their secrets, businesses, and reputations untouched. Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, it is also a novel about love; a novel that explores love between a mother and daughter, husband and wife, and even a boy and his dog.

Gruley is a talented storyteller at the top of his game, and this might just be his best effort so far. Taut, smart, entertaining, and packed with a variety of types of tension, Bleak Harbor is one of those books that make readers keep flipping pages until everything has been said and done. Luckily for them, the author has something up his sleeve, and this tale contains the kind of twist that most novelists dream about cooking up when they are writing: a truly surprising revelation that changes everything the reader thought she knew. If you like your fiction gloomy and brilliant in equal measure, this one should definitely be on your shelves.

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