Black Water by Louise Doughty

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Reviewed by Victoria

Louise Doughty is probably best known for her novel, Apple Tree Yard, which was a huge hit back in 2013. It told the story of a scientist brought low by sexual indiscretion and had elements of the thriller as well as the morality tale. Now she has published Black Water, another novel concerning dark, complex moral questions, and for me it is even better. Black Water is a brilliant, troubling tale that grows ever more apt and uncanny as 2016 progresses. It asks us how we should judge actions taken in the heat of revolutionary turmoil, actions that take place when our own survival is at stake, but which will have the blackest of consequences.

When we first meet John Harper, he is living in a hut in the mountainous forests of Bali, waiting for henchmen to come and kill him in the middle of the night. Officially, Harper is an economic analyst who has worked much of his career overseas in Indonesia. The son of a crazy Dutch mother and an Indonesian father he never knew, his skin colour allows him to pass for either black or white, depending on context, and this has been useful to his bosses. Harper’s career has taken place in a very grey area of human interactions: ‘People like me get hired to do the jobs that governments don’t want to give their spies, or don’t want to get caught giving them,’ he explains. The explanation is required when he meets Rita, a ex-pat teacher in Bali, with whom he falls unexpectedly easily into a significant affair. After all that’s happened in his life, Harper is not the kind of man to open up emotionally, not the kind who wants to explain and justify himself. The appearance of Rita in his life forces him to confront his past, but then, it’s never been buried far below the surface; he has never been anything other than haunted by all he has done and seen.

Doughty draws us back through his early life in the company of his erratic and self-centred mother, Anita, a woman damaged by history. Their flight to safety takes them to America, where Harper becomes part of a multi-racial family that is full of love, tenderness and respect. This is a brilliant move by Doughty; the goodness affects young John as much as the tragedies of his childhood, and makes a necessary counterpoint to the darkness of the rest of the novel. Whatever happens to Harper happens to a man who has had a powerful example of ethics put in front of him, who will never forget what it is to work only for good.

But where Harper ends up, good and bad are hard to distinguish. Black Water has real historical tales to tell from the Indonesian massacres in 1965, events that have rarely had much public exposure but which were shocking in their brutality, as supposed Communist sympathisers were hunted down, tortured and killed. And in case we should suppose such horrors lie only in the distant past, Harper must deal with further violent unrest in the Jakarta riots of 1998. Harper’s free indirect discourse has chilling echoes, though, for today and tomorrow:

This was what happened when you made people’s lives harder and harder: eventually things got so hard there was nothing to lose. Why fear retribution when your life is a punishment already?

And in another powerful moment, sheltering in his luxury apartment while the riots take place a mere few streets away (but those streets mark out all the distance in the world between rich and poor), Harper has these philosophical thoughts:

There would always be horrors, perhaps. Perhaps there would never be a time in human history when they would not exist because it would take so lng for Homo sapiens to develop to that stage that a meteor would have wiped them all out by then, like the dinosaurs, or a freak tidal wave would have washed them all away – darkness upon earth, cold and dark, before this sick, soft race worked out how to live without huge numbers of it suffering cold and hunger and humiliation in order for the lucky few to live in something approaching peace and comfort. But the closeness of it: the fact that he could walk out of his clean, white apartment again right now if he wanted and a few streets away….

I found Black Water a breathtakingly good novel as I was reading it: powerful, completely engrossing, asking difficult, necessary questions. But it’s just grown better in my mind ever since, and now I think it’s also highly pertinent for right now, when times of unrest bring us ever closer to violence that might strike up mere streets away. And when we all have to consider what we would do to save our skins at the cost of those of others, especially those whom we believe to be different to us. Good novels make us think, but great novels make us tremble for the human race. Black Water is a properly great novel.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Louise Doughty, Black Water (Faber & Faber, 2016). 978-0571323555,  352pp., hardback.

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