Knife River

A Novel

About the Book

“A twisting, engrossing, and beautiful mystery. Thrilling, yet also deeply moving, layered, and powerful.”—Chris Whitaker, New York Times bestselling author of All the Colors of the Dark, a Read with Jenna Book Club pick as seen on Today

“A delicious smoke curl of a novel.”—#1 New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult

“An intelligent literary mystery.”—#1 New York Times bestselling author Paula Hawkins

A compelling story of family, home, and the bond between sisters that asks: Who do you believe when you can't even trust yourself?

When Jess was thirteen, her mother went for a walk and never returned. Jess and her older sister, Liz, never found out what happened. Instead, they did what they hoped their mother had done: survive. As soon as she was old enough, Jess fled their small town of Knife River, wandering from girlfriend to girlfriend like a ghost in her own life, aimless in her attempts to outrun grief and confusion. But one morning, fifteen years after their mother’s disappearance, she gets the call she’s been bracing for: Her mother’s remains have been found.

Jess returns to find Knife River—and her sister—frozen in time. The town is as claustrophobic and rundown as ever. Liz still lives in their childhood home and has become obsessed with unsolved missing persons cases. Jess plans to stay only until they get some answers, but their mother’s bones, exposed to the elements for so long, just leave them with more questions. As Jess gets caught up in the case and falls back into an entanglement with her high school girlfriend, her understanding of the past, of Liz, of their mother, and of herself become more complicated—and the list of theories more ominous.

Knife River is a tense, intimate, and heartrending portrayal of how deeply and imperfectly women love one another: in romantic relationships, in friendships, and especially as sisters.
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Praise for Knife River


Knife River is a delicious smoke curl of a novel: atmospheric, sharp, and skilled at twisting the reader’s guesses in unimaginable ways.”—Jodi Picoult, #1 New York Times bestselling author

Knife River is an intelligent literary mystery with a rich sense of place and a clever plot; but it is Champine’s keenly-observed depiction of the aftermath of tragedy and the corrosive impact of loss that sets this novel apart.”—Paula Hawkins, #1 New York Times bestselling author

Knife River is a gorgeous, magnetic portrait of two sisters whose lives are shattered by the loss of their mother. Part mystery, part investigation into the nature of loss, this novel is both startlingly beautiful and unputdownable. Justine Champine has written a knockout debut.”—Danielle Trussoni, New York Times bestselling author of The Puzzle Master

“Beautifully written, gripping and poignant, Knife River is a moving debut about love, women and buried secrets.”—Jean Kwok, New York Times bestselling author of Girl in Translation

“With the wry, crackling humor of Sally Rooney and Ottessa Moshfegh, and a grip on the darkest, prickliest corners of human behavior, Knife River is completely singular in vision, skill, and oneiric, haunting atmosphere. Champine writes dykes, outsiders, and desire like no one else. Her work is transcendent.”—T Kira Madden, author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls

“A twisting, engrossing, and beautiful mystery. Thrilling, yet also deeply moving, layered, and powerful.”—Chris Whitaker, author of All the Colors of the Dark, a Read with Jenna Book Club pick as seen on Today

Knife River is a twisty, intoxicating book. The beating heart of it is raw and tender, full of guilt and heartache and hope. It's a genuine and unsettling look at how loss can divide a family, but it’s also a story about the long and difficult ways we finally make our way back home. Justine Champine is a very gifted writer and readers are going to be hooked on Knife River.”—Kristen Arnett, author of With Teeth

“The relationship between the sisters . . . shines. . . . Suspenseful and surprisingly moving.”—Kirkus Reviews
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Knife River

Chapter 1

I was at home when I got the call.

It was my girlfriend’s home, really, though I’d been living there with her for a year. Sarah was a dermatologist. A calendar keeper, a salad eater, a former horse girl. The only person I’d ever known whose under-the-sink area was spotless and organized. Every morning I got up hours after she left for work and walked around the house, trying not to nudge anything astray. In the beginning, I thought that feeling would pass, that soon enough I would relax into the house and all its surfaces would feel like mine to leave dust on. But still each night I found myself zipping all my toiletries back into my travel case so they wouldn’t mingle with her vast array of expensive serums. She had a very involved skin-care routine. Eleven steps, at least. All day she swooped in and out of bright, sterile rooms squeezing and lancing people’s skin, then came home and fussed with her own face. She fussed, too, over mine. Occasionally I opened my eyes on a weekend morning to find her already alert, staring at some spot on my shoulder or chest, with a detached laserlike focus. She was always forcing me to apply sunscreen.

We met online. Our first date was at an apple orchard. I drove out from Queens, where I was staying in a friend’s spare room after breaking up with my last girlfriend, to New Jersey, where Sarah lived. I wound up spending the weekend. We picked too many apples. We made three pies and stayed up until dawn each day explaining all the intimate details of our most formative life events, punctuating the explanations with sex and pie eating and some light crying. We agreed that I would return the next weekend, and then the next, and then soon I was moving in.

My friend, the one I’d been staying with, eyed me wearily as I tossed all my clothes into a duffel bag.

“On to the next one,” she said flatly. Her fifteen-year relationship had come to an abrupt end that summer, and though she insisted that it was fine and for the best and didn’t cost her any sleep, I sometimes heard her crying in the night and throwing things at the wall.

“That’s one way to look at it,” I said.

“Well, Jess.” My friend rapped gently at the doorframe, surveying the bedroom with a vacant expression. “It was good having you here.”

“I’ll come see you still. I’m not going to Siberia.”

“Not exactly.”

“Less than an hour away.”

“That’s a long hour.”

I knew what she meant. I felt a little bad leaving her alone in the apartment—it was large and drafty, and full of furniture she’d shared with her ex. I felt some chagrin, too, for having come there with so much gusto after breaking up with one woman, only to leave for Sarah with similar gusto two months later. In the ten years since I’d left home, I’d never had my own place. When I could, I gave cash for rent to a girlfriend, or to a friend in the between times. All my things fit into a few bags, a fact that had recently begun to bother me, so much so that I’d actually told Sarah I had a storage unit somewhere out near Philadelphia, where I once lived. And I did have one there for a while, years ago, to stow a mattress and bed frame I’d been given, but I stopped paying the bill and the locks were soon changed.

Every New Year’s Day, I’d privately resolve to learn how to stay happily in one place for a while. Before Sarah, I’d even made plans to go to Maine. I knew someone there, an older lady named Maria who’d since retired from the office I worked at and lived Down East full time near her family. She was actually my boss, but she’d always been soft with me, patient with my errors when I was new, interested in my dayto-day. We kept in touch, emailing a few times a year. She had a daughter who had a job with the parks service, tagging and monitoring the breeding population of peregrine falcons in Acadia. Every so often, Maria sent me pictures taken on hikes up towering, silvery rocks where the birds nested above the tree line. Below were lush valleys of pine and a vast ocean, capped with froth. The pictures, the whole idea of a life in this place, tranquil and pristine as it appeared on my computer screen, tugged at something in me. I didn’t see why I couldn’t go there myself. Not just to visit, but to live, work, make some kind of home. After all, I was always longing to be outdoors. But then the newness of the year grew stale, and in September I met Sarah and forgot all about the falcons and Maine.

When I pulled up to her house the day I moved in, Sarah was standing out on the front steps waiting for me. Within minutes she’d affixed a security sticker to my windshield, adding, “I put you on the gate registry so you can come and go freely.” Her beige two-story was one of a dozen nearly identical beige or white or pale yellow houses on the block, which was one of a handful of cheerfully named, freshly paved streets in the development. Everything sat in a horseshoe facing a scenic reservoir with a walking path. There seemed to be a different gazebo around each corner, though I never saw a single person inside one.

“You don’t have much stuff,” she said, eyeing the mismatched duffel bags scattered around the back seat. “Is this everything?” I nodded. In the time we’d been dating, Sarah hadn’t come to visit me where I was staying, or met any of the few friends I had. She didn’t ask much about my transcription job, either. It didn’t bother me. I actually preferred things that way. I liked driving out to her place on Friday afternoons. I loved emerging from the tunnel into the gentle, blue light of day and whizzing past all the ugliness of the gas stations and motels and on ahead toward the quiet leafiness of her neighborhood.

Our whole relationship was built on these weekends. Each one was so simple and calm. We would have breakfast on her deck and then go to the garden center to buy potted geraniums or deer spray or whatever she needed for her yard. There was something oddly perverted about it all for me: the way she wore cardigans tied around her shoulders, and that she was friends with all these straight moms in the clean, gated community where she owned a home. Sarah was eleven years older than me, and she’d been married once before to a woman named Francis. A real estate lawyer. They separated right before beginning IVF. I didn’t understand how urgently Sarah still wanted children until we’d already been living together for a few months. She’d talked about it some before, and I believed her, but the idea of it all seemed so far away, so irrelevant and intangible to me, and was always quickly brushed aside by the glittering newness of our relationship, buried under all the surging lust and discoveries of one another’s interests and fears.

Sarah kept a binder from an upscale sperm bank in her study. In it were the detailed profiles of about 150 men, all around my age, with good teeth and advanced degrees. I first saw it one night after dinner when we were talking about her marriage and all the ways it had gone wrong. Sarah exhaled slowly when she was finished, deflating back into her chair and swirling the wine in her glass.

She took a long look at my face and said, “You’re very mature for your age.” This elicited in me an unnerving combination of arousal and revulsion and panic. It was the same thing teachers often said to me growing up.

About the Author

Justine Champine
Justine Champine’s short fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Epoch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is a founding staff member of No Tokens Journal. She lives in New York City. Knife River is her first novel. More by Justine Champine
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