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.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

  1. Maxine – I always like and appreciate so much your thoughtful and honest reviews. This one’s no exception. Thanks for your detailed and helpful comments on the book. I’d actually wondered what this one was like, and at some point, I might read it. Not immediately, though…

  2. I loved this book and so did many of my friends–those of us who joined in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s or those too young to have been involved but are involved today in issues that continue on to create real equality and end discrimination of all forms. The book was passed all around Houston and it was very popular.

  3. FYI: Houston, Texas is the setting of “Black Water Rising.”

  4. I have had this one on my wishlist for a long time but have never been prompted quite enough to actually read it. I feared it would fall under the same category as James Lee Burke’s THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN which had eminently worthy themes (looking at New Orleans in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina) but which, for me, failed as a piece of story telling. In that book I felt that the author’s genuine heartache and totally justified anger got in the way of the craft and turned the book into a fairly jumbled mess that dared anyone to disagree with even one of the many ‘arguments’ made in the book (and my review of the book is the only one I’ve written that’s ever generated a truly nasty piece of feedback that accused me of all sorts of evil including racism). So thanks for this review because it has confirmed that my fears might well have been true and as there are so many other things to read I’m going to skip it. I’ll wait for her next offering.

  5. I read this two or three months back after reading both good and mediocre reviews of BLACK WATER RISING. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would following some of the mediocre reviews, but didn’t think it quite matched the effusive praise. A good debut, that had a lot going on, and was more about a story unfolding in the texture of a place, rather than an out-and-out thrilling plot. In the end, I think I admired the book more than loved it, but did think it was a good novel.

  6. So many of friends liked or loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. It has been nominated for several book prizes. For those of us in the U.S. who know the history and were part of it, it may have more significance. Also, with “The Tin Roof Blowdown,” I notice friends who are from the U.S. South or who were part of or volunteered to help after the Hurricane Katrina crisis, or others who donated funds and/or watch every development closely, liked the book a lot (including my doctor), thought Burke brought out a lot that didn’t come to public view. So it depends what readers are looking for in a book.

  7. hi Kathy, I’ve read and enjoyed, been amazed by, and been very affected by, many books about the topics addressed here – civil rights movement, racism, etc. I was even absorbed in the issues of unionisation of the shipyards, I topic in which I thought I had little interest, by the brilliant second series of The Wire – which addressed the same themes as this novel, in this context. So it was not because of any intrinsic lack of sympathy with its aims and core emotions that I did not like this book all that much, to the contrary. I enjoyed reading it, but it just didn’t do it for me in the way that others have done. Sorry.

  8. Bernadette – that is an awful thing to happen – unfortunately all too common on the internet etc, where people often write before they think and without having read the item they are commenting on. My sympathies.
    BTW, another character who interested me in this book was the journalist – there is so much going on in the novel that I could not cover everything in the review, but I should have mentioned that. Again, unfortunately, this character is intriguing and the author puts quite some effort (and pages!) into setting up that aspect of the plot, only for that to peter out, too…..
    I don’t mean to be down on the book as I did enjoy it, and think the author has a lot of talent and potential, but for me not one of my favourites of the year, so far. Even though I like novels about contemporary events that have a big political heart, as this one does.

  9. I haven’t read this book yet it is on my TBR mountain. Whenever a book makes any political point it is bound to inspire strong opinions, and I am looking forward to reading this one.

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