Louise Doughty’s new novel, Black Water, shares its name with a private military contractor that came to prominence through the US led occupation of Iraq. Whilst the book finds another reason for the use of this title, the association is probably entirely intended, although events within the story in no way relate to this period in history. As the novel begins we are introduced to the downbeat figure of Harper, a Dutch Indonesian in his late fifties, who has had his life shaped by tragedies that started to unfold even before he was born. The story acts as an examination of how he came to be hidden away on Bali by his employer. Key mishaps that shaped him as a character are retold, and whether he could have had some influence on circumstances or not, as the helpless victim on the wrong side of history, is debated.
The employer in question is a secretive American-owned Dutch organisation known as ‘The Institute’ which is, in this fictional sense, making use of the connotations identified within the title of the novel. After a near life-ending episode during a period of civil unrest in Jakarta circa 1965, Harper has had a desk job in Holland for thirty years. Fate brings him back to Jakarta only to be caught up in chaotic conditions in 1998 induced by the effects of the East Asian financial crisis and the associated overthrow of the Indonesian government. He is all but disowned by The Institute and is well aware of the potential finality entailed in what that means.
In the present day he meets Rita, who is at a similar crossroads in her life, having escaped an abusive partner, and is separated from her only child. What starts as a casual sexual relationship evolves into an intimacy that is something of a confessional. They attempt to resolve themselves in explaining the tragedies within their lives to each other, the focus of the story being on Harper where Rita provides an emotional backdrop.
The novel’s second act meanders through key happenings within Harper’s life and, whilst the individual events are portrayed realistically, an unwelcome feeling of impending death permeates. The experience of reading is like a trudge through a no man’s land of dulled emotion where Harper himself seems to perpetually exist. Moments of excitement should have provided a counterpoise to this, but despite the potential of events portrayed, for example being on the run for his very life as a young man, they never really do. This feeling of drudgery is reinforced through the summarisation of all that has previously been told at the start of the third act. The author seems to doubt the resonance of the initial telling.
Critics have compared Louise Doughty to John Le Carré and his ability to imbue a real sense of moral complexity, whilst also providing excitement. Whilst this may be the laziest cliché in publishing, the truth of the matter is that whilst the former is eminent within Doughty’s accomplished writing style, the latter, at least in this instance, is absent. What I was put more in mind of was when Ian Fleming lost his way in the third act of Casino Royale where the mundane got hold of the story and turned it uninteresting. Here Doughty loses her vigour within the first act and never really recovers.
Louise Doughty is an award-winning playwright and author of eight other novels. Black Water is the follow-up to the successful Apple Tree Yard and the pressure to emulate that success may be the problem with this novel. All the ingredients were present for a compelling story, and, with development, that story could have been convincingly told, but what we have been left with is a literary thriller that does not, ultimately, thrill.