Category Archives: Louise Doughty

Black Water – Louise Doughty

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.

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Faber & Faber, hardback, 2016, fiction, 345 pages, kindly given at an event by the publisher

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.

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Filed under Faber & Faber, Louise Doughty, Review

Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty

I do love a book where a character does something completely out of the ordinary and chases a whim for a split second which then changes their lives forever. Louise Doughty uses this device in her latest novel Apple Tree Yard and creates a gripping and thrilling (for oh so many reasons) tale of a women’s fall from grace that leads her from respectability to being on trial at the Old Bailey. It makes for a very, very compelling read.

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Faber & Faber, paperback, 2014, fiction, 448 pages, from my own personal TBR

‘You are familiar, aren’t you?’ says Ms Bonnard in her satin, sinuous voice, ‘with a small back alleyway called Apple Tree Yard.’ I close my eyes, very slowly, as if I am bringing the shutters down on the whole of my life until this moment. There is not a sound from the court, then someone from the benches in front of me shuffles their feet. The barrister is pausing for effect. She knows that I will keep my eyes closed for a moment or two: to absorb this, to attempt to calm my ragged breathing and buy myself a few more seconds, but time has slipped from us like water through our fingers and there is none of it left, not one moment: it’s over.

From the start of Apple Tree Yard we know that Yvonne Carmichael, a married 52 year old highly successful geneticist, is on trial for something horrendous. What we don’t know is what that is, how she may or may not have been involved and what may have led her to that situation. Louise Doughty already has you hooked, I mean with a start like that and all those questions how could she not. What is brilliant is that as the tale goes on she keeps the pace cracking along, and the twists a coming round the corners of every chapter, as we learn of a moment when Yvonne met ‘X’ and in a split second decided to be reckless and ends up having sex with him in a public place and starting an affair built on thrills and risk. Yet the risk, it turns out, is going to be far greater than Yvonne could ever have imagined.

There are several things that make the book so thrilling to read. First there is Yvonne herself. As we read on, going backwards, and find out about her life we learn how all the people around her, herself included in fact, would say she was the last women they could imagine having an affair. From the outside she seems to have the perfect life. They would say she is happily married, has two wonderful children, is highly respected in her job – of course facades can be just that and also do we always really know how happy we are? You cannot help but be compelled to learn more about Yvonne and what makes her suddenly do something so out of character and reckless. There is also the lingering question, how reliable is Yvonne and the side of the story she is giving us?

The structure of the book also makes it very twisty and all the more readable. Louise Doughty sets the book is set into parts first we have the prologue; which feels like it is the end at the start but actually isn’t, then we have X & Y; letters that Yvonne writes to her mystery lover X about how they met and how things spiralled, A T C & G; looks at her family life and what lies behind the façade before things start and the lies she tells afterwards, then finally DNA which is the trial.

Each section is gripping in its own way. In X & Y we have the start of the affair and the illicit sexual nature it takes on. So what about all the sex? Come on, we all do it (well unless there are some Nuns or Monks reading in which case I apologise) and if we all admit it we can’t help but be fascinated/titillated by it. The sex between Yvonne and her lover is really what keeps their affair going, mainly out in public areas this too is completely out of character for Yvonne. Doughty looks at sexuality frankly and, rather bravely, explicitly without it ever being gratuitous or smutty.

In A T C & G we get a look into another subject that fascinates us all, family secrets and cracks in the domestic life. You might thing the Carmicheal’s are the perfect family but are they really? Doughty takes a very interesting look at marriage and child and parent relationships whilst also making sure there is a brooding atmosphere and sense of everything being about to smash into pieces. Domestic drama, we love it don’t we? This culminates in the reason why Yvonne and her lover are on trial, which I had forgotten about so thrilled had I been. This of course leads to the final section DNA, where we have the trial. Now I don’t think I like a courtroom setting but I was gripped by this as witnesses come to the stand Doughty throws in a few more twists for good measure.

What is also brilliant about Apple Tree Yard is the questions it asks. Why is sexuality for people over 50 almost seen as a taboo? Do we fool ourselves into thinking we are happy? Why do women tend to be judged more harshly in terms of sexuality or wrong doing? (This really reminded me of the brilliant Did She Kill Him? only with a different subject and in the modern world not in the Victoriana of that true court case. These two would actually make great companion pieces. Just saying.) All this whilst being a cracking yarn and a wonderfully written and plotted thrilling tale.

I sit in the dock. And I listen to this story. And it comes to me that all you need for a story is a series of facts that can be strung together. A spider sometimes strings a thread from a bush to a fence post several feet away, quite implausibly it often seems, but it’s still a web.

The above quote, from Yvonne as she sits in the docks, wonderfully summarises Apple Tree Yard. Louise Doughty is, if you will allow me, a genius spider spinning an intricate and deft web. A truly original, gripping, slick yet slightly grubby (in a good way), thrilling tale which – cliché alert – I found very, very difficult to put down. I thought it was brilliant. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Not only one of the best thrillers of my reading year so far, one of the best reads full stop.

Who else has read it and what did you make of it? Which of Louise Doughty’s books should I get my mitts on next?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Faber & Faber, Louise Doughty, Review