There are no dueling banjos in Erica Ferencik’s new novel, “The River at Night,” but the author of this riveting Maine wilderness thriller is canny enough to tip her hat early to the book’s likeliest source of inspiration. Four middle-aged women embark on a whitewater rafting journey from a town called Dickey, and it’s immediately clear that they are heading into territory explored in “Deliverance” more than 40 years ago.

As the book opens, Boston graphic designer Winifred Allen is fed up with her professional and personal life, but unable to choose what to do next. Grieving the death of her autistic younger brother, blindsided by the dissolution of her 15-year marriage and resentful of being little more than a glorified Photoshop jockey, she relishes the idea of an all-girls vacation with three of her best friends: ultra-competent alpha female Pia, nurse and recovering addict Rachel, and mom and cancer survivor Sandra. But does the excursion have to be a white-knuckle trip through uncharted parts of the Allagash Wilderness, rather than a simple week of white beaches and tropical drinks?

Wini eventually allows herself to be badgered into spending a small fortune on camping equipment at REI and signing up for the trip north. She muses, “I couldn’t tell which was worse, the fear of being left behind by my friends as they dashed away on some uberbonding, unforgettable adventure, or the inevitable self-loathing if I stayed behind like some gutless wimp – safe, always safe – half-fucking dead with safety. Why couldn’t I just say yes to a camping trip with three of my best friends? What was I so afraid of?”

The early chapters of “The River at Night” hint at some of the things Wini should be nervous about. A bathroom break at a run-down general store in what seems to be the middle of nowhere leads to a nasty encounter with some hunters. (The scene relies a bit on rural Maine stereotypes, but it’s still effective and chilling.)

Rory Ekhart, the 20-year-old, gun-toting guide for their expedition, seems a little too cavalier about the intensity and danger of their trip down the river. He and Pia are also better acquainted than Wini, Sandra and Rachel first assume, and their sexual tension only adds to the stress of the situation.

As it must, a moment of crisis arrives on the river, and Wini and her compatriots find themselves fighting for their lives. It wouldn’t be sporting to reveal how it happens, but the women end up on their own, traumatized, lost and bereft of their raft and all of its survival gear. Just when they think they might have found help, something worse happens.

Even if one has not read James Dickey’s “Deliverance” or seen its film adaptation, the narrative shape of “The River at Night” is a familiar one, a sturdy platform for many a survival thriller.

But the difference is in the details, and while it is sometimes possible to predict what might happen next along the river ride through hell, Ferencik’s storytelling strategy also allows for some clever red herrings and unsuspected plot revelations. She also succeeds in keeping the plot taut and the prose tight, avoiding the bloat that afflicts so many thrillers these days.

Ferencik does a splendid job of depicting the beauty and the brutality of the Maine wilderness. She captures its capriciousness, how a pleasant afternoon in the water can pivot suddenly into a dark, life-threatening ordeal.

She also knows how to craft an electrifying antagonist, one who will push Wini and crew to their mortal limits.

The novel benefits from the rapport Ferencik devises among the four friends. Each woman is caught up in her own individual circumstance, but Wini’s narration makes clear the ties that bind them through good times and horrific ones.

If Rachel and Sandra both seem a little out of focus, defined without an abundance of nuance, it may be because Wini and Pia are so vivid in the contrast of their personalities, the former’s fearful caution against the latter’s supreme self-confidence.

The quartet still has a dynamism that compels the reader to care about them all and agonize about their ultimate safety.

By the time “The River at Night” reaches its destination, the novel becomes far more than just a distaff version of “Deliverance.”

Surprising, exhilarating and suspenseful, it’s a treacherous, rapid thrill-ride.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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