So if I was relieved to see how relatively short Laila Lalami’s The Secret Son was, when I picked it up from the library, as part of my insane Read-the-Orange-Prize-Longlist plan, you can imagine how disheartened I was to see how relatively long Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising was.
There I was, less than a week from the shortlist announcement and, I swear, even thought it’s only 430 pages long, it looks Wolf-Hall-length. Maybe they use thick paper or something? Anyway, it doesn’t matter one bit, because I absolutely inhaled this novel!
And Black Water Rising is one of those novels I would never have picked up, were it not for the Orange Prize listing. The cover blurb comes from James Ellroy and the back cover quotes him again, with George Pelacanos, and the dust jacket draws comparisons with Dennis Lehane and Greg Iles: “a brilliant debut thriller”.
Now, within their niche, I recognize that these writers are remarkable, and if I had investigated further I would have been impressed by the many nominations the book has received (and which it may yet win), but it’s just not one that I would have chased down. So I would have missed out, big-time.
Attica Locke’s first novel is inspired by an event in her own past which mirrors the experience of her main character, Jay Porter. You can read about this on her website, in her Personal Note. That event only took a few moments, but she never knew what the outcome was, and the fact that it remained unresolved urged her to carry on the story in Black Water Rising. I didn’t know that when I started reading (it was compelling without knowing the personal connection), but plot-wise this novel is gripping and, although the term is overused it’s applicable here, unputdownable.
An intriguing plot alone, however, would not have pulled me through the book so quickly. It was the combination of a carefully articulated setting, leap-off-the-page characterization, and intelligent and unflinching storytelling (with the occasional, well-placed and appropriately chosen metaphor) that sealed the reading deal for me.
Characterization that takes on complex issues:
“Jay looks around the posh club, peppered with business-men and city officials. He is, in fact, the only black man in the room. Money, it turns out, is the new Jim Crow. Jim looks at Charlie, feeling a heat spread beneath his collar, imagining yet another motive for bringing Jay to this place, with it creamy leather chairs and sterling silverware, the twenty-dollar steaks and Kenny Rogers pumped through hidden speakers.” (75)
“The whole thing looks like it was slapped-together as an afterthought, a sloppy attempt at decorum, like a hat resting precariously on a drunk’s head.” (4)
Setting, Houston, Texas, 1981:
“Jay shuts off the engine to his car, but leaves his headlights on, shining them past the field of dirt and grass to the hawthorne trees and bunches of scrub oak and Spanish moss on the other side. He still can’t see the bayou from here. If he didn’t know better, he would laugh if somebody told him there’s water on the other side of those trees, running right through the middle of the city.” (55)
This last quote is particularly salient, I think, because even though it’s drawn from relatively early in the novel, it reveals that what drives Black Water Rising is as much about what is not seen, what is not acknowledged, what is not expected.
But don’t go thinking that you can just dip your toe into this one: you’ll only wanna jump right in.
On Mondays and Thursdays, in April and May, I’m Buried in Print.
Today’s Stats: Read and Bookchatted 6, 10 still to read, 4 can’t find.