Black Water is a departure for British writer Louise Doughty, who has made a name for herself writing cutting-edge suspense fiction. Combining historical fact with poetic fiction, Doughty's
troubled, lonely anti-hero John Harper journeys through one of Indonesia's most turbulent times. Following the basic plot of most of that country's shadow-puppet fables, Harper becomes a tragic witness to the earthly balance of good and evil. He’s a goodhearted hero who finds himself hijacked by the events of 1965,
when the city of Jakarta simmers with political and social unrest and the government is intent to round up and murder suspected communists.
Harper now lives in a hillside hut on the island of Bali, forced into exile due to a catastrophic error of judgment. Welcomed by Kadek, a local villager who attends to his daily needs, the increasingly paranoid Harper is suffocating in a strange and stalwart silence. He spends his days sitting on his veranda, looking out into the forest and drinking whisky from his coffee cup while listening to the geckos call and the cicadas sing their “tuneless chorale.” For the first time, Harper realizes he’s probably become a liability and outlived his usefulness. He recalls telling Rita, the kindly teacher he’s recently started sleeping with, about the time back in 1965 when he was a courier and delivered a list of names--“lists of thousands of Communists”--and also survived a rioting mob.
As Doughty opens up her narrative, tracing Harper’s life from his childhood in Holland to his adolescence in Los Angeles to his journey as a young, naďve man living on Indonesia, her embattled hero resists the siren call of his past and the danger he thinks he faces from “the Institute,” the organization that has employed him for three decades. This sense of urgency forces Harper to remember his mother’s story: how he
was born during a monsoon in an internment camp in the Dutch East Indies where the rain perpetually ran down the sides of the hut and the dirt roads turned into brown rivers.
Harper’s mother, Anika, and her relentless quest for love leads her crashing around the world, wreaking havoc in other people’s lives. In Los Angeles in 1956, she meets a man called Michael J. Ensconced in the kindly fold of Michael’s parents, Nina and Poppa, Harper realizes that he’s no longer considered “the odd man out.” The fact that he was born in an internment camp in a country on the other side of the world is no longer an issue. Harper’s time living in Los Angeles is one of happiness, routine, and certainty. Only years later does Harper realizes that things were going right for him when, almost from the start, Michael Jr. and Anika’s marriage started to fracture.
From Los Angeles back to Holland and on to the political turmoil of Jakarta
mid-20th century, Harper’s suffering is all too real. His story serves as a reminder of the terrible slaughter of thousands by a regime at war with itself. Caught up in the heat of Indonesia’s battles, Harper must learn
to move beyond the piercing ghosts of those who were taken out of their homes and either tortured or killed, these families who became collateral damage of Sukarno, an anti-colonialist hero turned decadent dictator.
Channeling Harper’s passionate loves and losses, Doughty shows us how innocence can by blindsided by political intrigue, expatriate sleaze, and the machinations of a corrupt Indonesian political system. Doughty seems to be saying that Harper’s past is not solid but like a river, something fluid and continuous. From 1965 to 1998 to 1959,
everyman Harper reflects history that is multiplied back and forth in a series of “endless iterations.” Both in Europe and, later, in America, Harper is always required to explain himself. With his thick, black hair, his large black eyes, this “black bastard from Batavia” is far more an intellectual than people give him credit for, much more political than casual acquaintances would guess, and also more passionate about Indonesia, something he keeps mostly to himself.
Similar in subject matter to Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously, Doughty’s beautiful, deliberative
novel conveys a sense of timelessness that embodies both modern and historical Indonesia. It is to Doughty’s credit that her hero willingly overturns the classic notion of the valiant Westerner, a man who often finds himself excluded from civilian life with no real nationality or home yet sees himself as part of something else, a “kind of brotherhood.” While the story was sometimes a bit too heavy-going for me, I appreciated how Doughty was able to weave her tale: part mystery, part political/ espionage thriller, part romance, all of it packed into a landscape fueled by heat, rain, violence, and human imperfection in all its forms.