Review: BLACK WATER RISING by Attica Locke

BlackWaterRisingLockeAtticaAudioIt’s Houston, Texas, 1981. Jay Porter, a lawyer barely scratching out an existence with a handful of low or no paying clients, takes his wife on a bayou boat ride one night to celebrate her birthday. They hear a woman’s scream, gun shots and something fall into the water. After some prompting from his wife Jay dives in to discover a barely conscious woman whom he manages to drag onto the boat. Receiving no explanation from the woman about what led up to her ending up in the water, Jay and his wife drop her outside a police station. They don’t think about the incident further until Jay notices a news article about a man having been found shot dead near where their boat picked up the mysterious woman. Ostensibly the rest of the book unravels the story of what went on that night.

I say ostensibly because it was my very strong impression that this somewhat clunky storyline wasn’t really the author’s focus. What she did seem interested in, and what she interested me in, was an exploration of the civil rights movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, depicted from an insider’s point of view via Jay Porter’s personal history. Much of the novel consists of flashbacks to his earlier life, starting with his time as an idealistic young student activist campaigning against segregation and other injustices being experienced by black people in the south of America. We see how and why Jay’s devotion to the causes he believed in lessened over time, to the point where he is a shadow of his former self and this aspect of the story manages to be compelling, credible and moving without wallowing in overt sentimentality. It’s a terrific example of the kind of thing people mean when they say that historical fiction brings the past alive in a way that factual recounting of events often fails to do.

However, the present-day storylines are significantly less successful, being jumbled, woolly and, more than once, preposterous. Elsewhere in the book Jay is depicted as possessing both intelligence and a strong sense of self-preservation but he makes his way to the scene of the crime and literally sprinkles his DNA and other evidence all over the place in an event that should have come with a flashing ‘clunky plot device’ neon sign. And even if you do manage to suspend your disbelief over this and other quite laughable happenings this present day plot meanders far too much. There are entire major threads I haven’t had time to discuss here, but the book finds time to delve into them in excruciating detail.

Even so I am, on balance, impressed with this novel. I have observed before that début novels tend to incorporate too many ideas, as this one did, and I can be forgiving of this trait from someone who might well wonder if this is the only thing they will ever publish. Locke’s writing is good, her research seamlessly incorporated into her world and her characters are very nuanced. There must have been a temptation to make Jay Porter and/or his wife into perfect and allegorical characters representing all facets of the struggles of African American people but Locke restrains herself on this front. They are ordinary people motivated most of the time by self-interest, as all but the very noblest among us are, and they are entirely believable. I think this credibility factor was helped in my case because I listened to the book narrated by American actor Dion Graham who became Jay Porter and told his very personal story of loss of self and helped transport me to Locke’s version of Houston 30-40 years ago.

If you are looking for a first rate crime novel then BLACK WATER RISING probably isn’t for you. But if you are looking for historical fiction that brings alive a version of the American civil rights movement in a way you won’t quickly forget then you could do a lot worse than read this novel. There is more than enough evidence here to convince me that Locke has real talent and that her second novel, already published, is something I need to read soon.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Dion Graham
Publisher Harper Audio [2009]
ASIN B002V010N8
Length 13 hours 52 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone novel

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13 thoughts on “Review: BLACK WATER RISING by Attica Locke

  1. I’ve heard a lot about this writer but never tried her. I can see this book has its flaws but you make a case for reading it anyway. It’s a period that I know very little about.

  2. Bernadette – What an excellent review – thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed the historical storyline even if the modern-day mystery plot didn’t exactly keep you engaged. I find that period in history to be absolutely fascinating myself and I’ll probably read this one just for that.

  3. You share many of my own concerns about this book. I think Attica Locke is a very talented writer and I enjoyed reading about the civil rights movement, but it was not crime fiction, and should never have been marketed as such by booksellers or publishers. You should try her second novel ‘The Cutting Season’, which fits much more neatly into the crime fiction genre, while still exploring very important issues around race, indentured labour and plantations old and new.

    • I am looking forward to The Cutting Season Marina – that was actually the book recommended to me but I thought it sounded like Locke might be an author whose development as a writer I would enjoy following, and I am happy enough to have read this one, faults and all.

  4. Bernadette: Thanks for an interesting review. I have participated in some court cases that were also causes such as a class action seeking same sex relationship survivor benefits under our national compulsory pension plan. The case was interesting. Not a murder in sight but alot of sorrow.

  5. What an interesting perspective you are able to provide Bill and I so agree that there can be sorrow in all kinds of scenarios – I know it’s the best thing we’ve got but it is a shame the law can be so slow to catch up with society’s changes – lots of people are badly treated while they wait.

  6. Yes. Bernadette, I agree with your point about the slow pace of the law in catching up to social changes — and social movements. True. Here, we don’t even have an Equal Rights Amendment for women, and there’s so much going on in the States, which is not reflected in the laws.
    I liked Black Water Rising and I do know quite a bit about the period Attica Locke was writing about and the people. However, I think your review is fair.
    I can’t wait to read The Cutting Season and will look for your review.

  7. This review typifies what I admire about you as a reviewer Bernadette. A thoughtful response, leaving as in not doubt regarding the flaws of this book, but finding enough that’s praiseworthy to recommend it. You’re an inspiration!

    I wonder if listening to Black Water Rising made it a better ‘read’? That said, I have heard good things about The Cutting Season, too, and will check it out.

    • Thanks for the very kind words Angela, much appreciated.

      I do think listening to this book added an extra layer, narrators don’t always do that but this one did – it actually reminded me that story telling was first an oral tradition – I do love being read to :)

  8. Pingback: Books of the Month – February 2013 | Reactions to Reading

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