by Robert Bockstael.
Pender Lake Press, c2021
Review by Lisa MacDonald
Willow’s Run is Robert Bockstael’s debut novel and hopefully not his last.
I’ll admit that the back-cover blurb for Willow’s Run didn’t sell me on the book. In fact, I would now say it did a disservice to both the main character and a twisty storyline that includes a decades-old murder, repugnant villains and an ensemble of engaging characters that kept me entertained through all 415 pages. But that isn’t how I felt at the outset. As I started the prologue, with no context other than the blurb, my enthusiasm was muted.
The immediate surprise of well-crafted dialogue and solid storytelling draws the reader into the opening pages, but it was with chapter two’s introduction of Alcima “The Willow” Willoughby that the real fun began. The female protagonist of Willow’s Run is a retired professional volleyball player who also happens to be 194 pounds of dense muscle and six-and-a-half feet tall. When we meet her, she has escaped from an abusive husband in an RV bus she’s named Ravi. She’s broke, detoxing and in search of a safe place to hide. Alcima’s arrival in the small town of Fall River is the catalyst for the surfacing of old and new secrets, all spiralling towards a violent end for those involved, including Alcima.
The fictional Fall River is placed south of the border, just “across the lake from Canada.” Its depiction as a small town that caters to the whims of seasonal tourists rings true, and the public library (“A hulking Victorian brick structure . . .”), Ravi the million-dollar RV, the local diner and a remote island house provide the backdrop for most of the action. It’s easy to place yourself in Fall River, and the setting lends itself to the novel’s mood of isolation, eccentricity and desperation.
Bockstael gets full marks for creating vivid characters that bring his story to life. Booker Thompson, another major character, is the town librarian whose tragic past equals that of the Willow in terms of emotional damage. Booker has his secrets too, closely guarded by his friend Sam, an enigmatic “hunter” who locates things – properties, cars, even a qualified chef – for a commission. There is a host of other small-town personalities including: Petite Lieutenant Terry, who is captivated by the larger-than-life Alcima; Lieutenant Terry’s shady twin brother Lawrence; Jimmy, who works in the theatre box office but has a vicious secret; and Harold of Harold Baker Real Estate, whose sin of gluttony is only the tip of the iceberg. Every character has a role to play in this percolating thriller where character loyalties are suspect and the threat of violence simmers close at hand.
Be prepared for Willow’s Run to get a bit gritty. The author doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the morals, or lack thereof, of his characters. Sexual deviance, greed, blackmail and jealousy drive the plot and make this book more of a suspenseful “thriller” than your typical murder mystery. There is humour too. Don’t expect laugh-out-loud giggles but rather a lightness that is written into the resilience of the main characters who’ve been through too much.
Short chapters help to keep the pace snappy as three stories unfold around Alcima, Booker and Jimmy. The author succeeds in weaving a layered plot that keeps the reader guessing. Bockstael takes his time revealing all the secrets, but it makes for a satisfying read when characters collide and plot lines converge.
There are no clear winners in the battles of good and evil that Willow’s Run chronicles, but there is redemption, loyalty between friends and a sense of optimism at its conclusion. It’s a story that leaves you wanting more.
Visit robertbockstael.com for information on purchasing Willow’s Run in e-book, paperback or hardcover format.
Lisa MacDonald is a non-fiction book editor who teaches a creative writing class at GNAG. She is now on the lookout for an amazon woman driving a Winnebago down the 401.