Knife River

In her intimately engrossing debut novel, Knife River, Justine Champine portrays two sisters whose futures were forever stalled the morning their mother disappeared from their small town in upstate New York.

Liz Fairchild was 19 and anxious to go away to college to study aerospace engineering. Instead, she became obsessed with their mother's disappearance and never left the town of Knife River. She leads a solitary life, works at the local bank, and still lives in the family home, which is filled with years-old junk she won't discard. Jess was 13, too young to have made many plans, but she's never settled in one place, drifting from girlfriend to girlfriend, working at a remote job. The sisters seldom see each other.

Then children uncover their mother's skeleton in the woods just outside Knife River, 15 years after she went missing. Jess hurriedly leaves her first stable relationship to join her sister. At first, the reunion is uneasy as neither sister is comfortable around the other. But they soon settle in as they try to figure out what happened to their mother. The police are little help and seem uninterested in a local businessman whom the sisters have long suspected in the disappearance.

Champine superbly combines the sisters' investigation with a thoughtful look at family bonds. As Jess and Liz begin to appreciate each other while dealing with their mutual grief, Champine's depiction of their evolving mental health and the impact of their mother’s shadow elevates this tense and gripping novel. --Oline H. Cogdill, freelance reviewer 

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