Back in May of 2014 I read Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard and was, I think it is fair to say, pretty caught up in it and its brilliance. It was one of those wonderful thrillers that packs and extra punch with all the themes it talks about amongst the main propelling action. In the case of Apple Tree Yard it was the cracks in families lives, the sexual desires of women (some not all) as well as a woman’s fall from grace – lots of things packed in. So I was very, very, very excited about the arrival of Black Water the follow up (not in a sequel or series sense) to it when I was at a Faber event in the Spring, where I also met Louise who was lovely. The thing with highly anticipated novels though is that I then get nervous about them and/or save them for a rainy day. However the lovely folk at Dead Good Books asked me if I would review it, a shorter version of this post is here, and so I pulled it off the shelves and set to devouring it.
John Harper is a man waiting to die. Each night he lies in wait for the men with machetes that he believes are coming to kill him. The question we have as a reader is of course ‘but why’? Why does a man spend his days in a small hut in the middle of the nowhere in Bali? Why does he avoid people as much as he can, and seem instantly suspicious of any one he does meet? Why would people want to kill him? What on earth did he do? These are just some of the mysteries that lie deep in the heart of Black Water from the opening chapter, and there are more as the reader carries on.
A picture came to him, black water, long strands of hair, clinging like seaweed across his wrist; he dismissed the picture. Instead, he played the game of pressing at the bubbles of air beneath the t-shirt until they formed smaller bubbles, mobile beneath the thin material. Then he was impatient with the game and held the whole t-shirt down, crushing it between his fists. It was like drowning a kitten.
Early on things shift somewhat when, on a rare trip into the nearby town, he meets Rita and after a night of sex that they both feel is inevitable Harper starts to look back at how he has ended up in this situation; paranoid, isolated, aloof. It is difficult to go much further into the plot for fear of spoilers, however what I can say is that what unravels is not what you might be expecting. We are given the story of a man’s life from his difficult birth, literally – it is really traumatic, then through his unusual upbringing and onto his eventual part in the Jakarta riots of the 1960’s and the effect that has on his life afterwards. Only we don’t get this in order, course not where would the fun be in that, we get it in fits and starts, dribs and drabs, not always in order and not always with the whole truth until right at the very end.
It was the unexpected aspects of Black Water that I found fascinating and the most compelling, often grimly so, giving extra weight to the novel. I previously had no idea what happened in Jakarta during 1965 and was horrified at the extent at which killings and riots were carried out which I found quite shocking. Doughty cleverly manages to give insight into both viewpoints on either side of the communist divide, there is one particularly emotional seen in which she discusses how friends, and neighbours could turn to foes merely to save their own live. How does that leave someone afterwards, where on the spectrum of morals does it fall to save your families lives at the expense of another?
Nina glanced at Poppa and Poppa said, ‘We’re not the usual household here, Nicholaas. Michael Junior’s mother died when he was around your age. Nina came into our lives about a year later, and she’s been the best wife and mother we could have hoped for.’
‘Even though, legally speaking, I’m neither,’ Nina said with a smile that seemed resigned but not particularly unhappy. ‘Well not quite yet.’
‘Soon though…’ said Poppa firmly, looking over his glasses at her and beaming, before turning to Harper and adding, ‘Nina’s mother was from Salvador. She’s Catholic,’ as if that explained everything.
What I also thought was brilliantly done was the discussion of family and race. As Harper and his mother Anika end up in America they become part of a family who are anything but conventional and brimming with love. I thought these sections of the book were wonderful especially as they show how the things that people go through in their childhood can so easily, and Doughty doesn’t mind putting her characters through the ringer.
The only slight critique I have of the novel is that occasionally when I was in Jakarta I was secretly hankering to go and see Harpers nuclear family (or whatever the awful term is) be it in America or off in Europe with his mother. In the latter case particularly I feel there is a whole book waiting in the wings all about Harper’s mother Anika which I would rush out to read the instant it came out because I found her story, even though it is a tiny piece of Black Water’s jigsaw puzzle, really fascinating and also tragic in a whole different way. This small critique is actually a sign of how great Doughty’s writing is, she can create pivotal plot points with peripheral characters who come fully formed and seem desperate to tell you their story too.
For readers, like me, who loved Apple Tree Yard there is the same delicious mounting tension, along with much intrigue, as a lead character slowly reveals their story – and who doesn’t love that – yet this is a very different kind of book. With Black Water Doughty uses the tropes and pace of a thriller to look intricately at race, grief, what makes a family a family, communism, historical events and the disparity of social classes as well as those between Asia and the rest of the world. That is quite something and sure to please Doughty’s many fans as well as bringing her many more.
Have you read Black Water and/or Apple Tree Yard and if so what did you make of them, as always I would love your thoughts and a natter about the book in the comments below. Apologies there has been a drought of reviews of late, I will be rectifying this over the next few weeks.