Book Review: Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

Locke  Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (Serpent's Tail)

Feted by wondrous reviews and on any number of award shortlists (including the Edgar and the Orange prize), I was predisposed to like this first novel about a lawyer in 1980s Houston, Texas. The book opens promisingly when Jay Porter and his heavily pregnant wife Bernie enjoy a night-time boat ride on a bayou, Jay’s surprise birthday present to Bernie. Their romantic evening is rudely interrupted by the sound of a woman screaming for help  somewhere onshore. Then, shots ring out and they hear something falling into the water. Jay dives in and discovers that what has fallen, or been thrown, into the river is a woman – he manages to get her onto the boat. She is barely able to speak, but after taking a shower she is well enough for Jay to drive her to the nearest police station, where he leaves her, unwilling to get further involved.

These events, and the rest of the novel, are told from Jay’s perspective and in the present tense, which is not a style I like, in general. It rapidly becomes apparent that Jay, a lawyer, is somewhat untrusting of authorities verging on the paranoid – he’s in the past been on trial for a crime he didn’t (we assume) commit, and regards Bernie and his unborn child as his route to salvation. As the novel continues, we learn a lot more about Jay’s past in flashback as the story centering on the mysterious woman unfolds.

Jay never knew his own father, who died at the age of 21 after an unprovoked beating by white men, before Jay was born. When Jay was a student in the late 1960s, he was part of a political activist movement, campainging against segregation in the American South. He soon he realises that he’s more interested in working to improve the inequities of globalisation than in fighting for Black Power, unlike most of his fellow students. Other radical student groups at the university in those heady times were campaigning for different causes, notably against the Vietnam war. As well as much infighting between these factions, many of them have been infiltrated by the government. Eventually, Jay pays the price of his political persuasion and, he assumes, his colour, when he is unfairly accused of attacking a fellow student and betrayed by the one person he has come to trust.

Returning to the present, Jay is asked by his father in law, the local church minister, to represent a young man who has been beaten up. The police aren’t interested, even though the boy says he can identify the men who attacked him. With reluctance, Jay contacts Houston’s mayor, someone with whom he shares some secrets, to obtain help in the boy’s case. The case gets mixed up in massive industrial unrest among the dockers and longshoremen – a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms. In an echo of the disputes among the student factions of Jay’s memory, some unions are pushing for a strike; others are concerned that such action would cause them to lose their jobs via automation or cheap immigrant labour; others are more interested in the unfair treatment, such as career progression, meted out to black workers compared with white. For his part, Jay attempts to keep out of all this politics for the sake of his family, and confine himself to the case he’s agreed to take because of his past obligations.

There are many more themes and storylines in this novel, and this in itself is part of the problem, for me. None of them really delivers, and several are not developed– political machinations, the oil industry and its greed, the case of the missing woman and the man who persistently follows Jay, either bribing or threatening him – none of it adds up into a sufficiently coherent or consistent whole. Although, as we learn more about his past, it is easy to sympathise with Jay, he isn’t a very interesting person. Bernie, his wife, is unformed and bland. The only person in this long novel who leaps off the page is the mayor, whose life and career is most intriguing, and about whom I’d like to know more. The crime plot is meandering at best and unconvincing at worst – the number of times Jay interviews someone, or is followed by someone, or is treated inconsistently by people who follow, bribe or attack him, is neither suspenseful nor logical. The same is true of the final revelation of what is at the heart of many of these goings-on  – I was not convinced, nor was I persuaded that what had gone before fitted with the set-up and its disparate associated events.

The author seems most at home in describing political activism – 1960s student unrest, and the struggles for equality of the 1980s are vividly depicted. This impression is reinforced by her postscript to the book, in which she writes that she was named after the Attica prison riots of 1971, and about her own parents’ stories as activists. 

While reading this (too long) novel about a lawyer seeking justice and domestic peace in the deep south, I was regularly reminded of To Kill a Mockingbird, and at the start I wondered if Black Water Rising was going to turn out to be an equivalent book for its generation. The answer is no (but it’s interesting that the author’s name is a female version of the main character in that novel, lawyer Atticus Finch) – even so, Black Water Rising is an ambitious book. It is over-written and attempts too many themes, but as it is a debut novel I hope that the author, who is a talented writer, will have got a lot out of her system and will be able to focus and deliver more in her next book.

Read reviews of this book at The Guardian, Material Witness, Wordsmithonia, and many other places.