Friday 29 September 2017


I have just finished reading this novel and I have to say that I'm glad that I've finished it. It's not that I didn't enjoy reading it because I did but I didn't feel as engaged with it as I have with other novels.

I was first introduced to Doughty's writing when I read Apple Tree Yard last year, well before the excellent BBC adaptation, and I really loved this novel. Firstly, because the main theme of a middle-aged woman finding sexual excitement when she least expected it appealed to me and secondly, because I really admired her writing style. Envious in fact.

But Black Water is a very different kettle of fish. For a start, I didn't like the beginning which made it clear that something really nasty was going to happen to the main character, John Harper, and personally I don't think it's a good idea to give away the ending at the beginning. I could see Doughty's reasoning as she weaves a story - zig-zagging from different times and different countries - leading to the ending. Clever writing, yes, but perhaps too clever by half.

So, the central character, John Harper, which is not his real name, has had a difficult childhood with a dead father and erratic, alcoholic mother, who drags him from Holland to America where she marries into a lovely African-American family only to drag him back again to Holland after an awful tragedy.

Because he is of mixed race, he is of use as some sort of secret agent in Indonesia but he feels a misfit, belonging no-where. His job is to secretly pass on lists of potential communist members and sympathisers to the authorities in Indonesia. It's dangerous work and at times he has to be ruthless to save himself.

As a balance to this unsavoury work, he has a brief affair with Rita, a teacher, whilst he is hiding out in a shack just outside a town in Indonesia. Rita is everything his wife isn't and for a time we hope that his dream of a simple life with her (buy a small piece of land, build a house and just enjoy being together) will come true but given the beginning, it looks like an impossible dream, thus denying us any sense that at long last he will have a happy life.

I really liked the portrayal of Rita. She's a well-built lady with loads of confidence and understanding. Non-demanding and fun to be with. I could have done with more Rita in the novel. But as for Harper, I couldn't really connect with him. Not my kind of guy and with few redeeming features. And yes, the dreadful thing did happen so no surprise there.

I shall certainly read more of Doughty's novels because she is a splendid writer but for me Black Water didn't really work. Shows just how important character and structure are.

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