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 nowhere in Bali? Why does he avoid people as much as he can, and seem instantly suspicious of anyone 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.
Things shift somewhat when John meets Rita on a rare trip into the nearby town, and after a night that they both feel is inevitable, Harper starts to look back at how he has ended up in this situation. 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, unusual upbringing and eventual part in the Jakarta riots of the 1960s and the effect that has on his life. Only 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.
These aspects I found fascinating, often grimly so, and it gave 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. I found it quite shocking. Doughty cleverly manages to give insight into viewpoints on either side of the communist divide and there is one particularly emotional scene in which she discusses how friends and neighbours could turn to foes merely to save their own lives. How does that leave someone afterwards? Where on the spectrum of morality does it fall to save your family’s lives at the expense of others?
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 brimming with love and anything but conventional. 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, good and bad, affect us in adulthood. Doughty doesn’t mind putting her characters through the wringer. I also felt that 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.
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 existing fans while bringing her many new readers too.