So you ask, what’s a book published in 2016 doing appearing on this blog? Now and then we make an exception as we did with Elena Ferrante’s exquisite My Brilliant Friend. Black Water ranked among last year’s New York Times 100 Notable Books. The New York Times itself gave Black Water a second chance by listing it in the Paperback Row column, reserved for notable books making their paperback appearances. The irresistible description began, “Hidden away in a Balinese town, John Harper, a contractor for a faceless European corporation, is waiting to be murdered.” It went on to tout the novel as an “excellent thriller.”
If you’re looking for the second coming of Gone Girl, Black Water is not it. It’s an existential, literary thriller, steeped in Indonesian history and culture, featuring a long-in-the-tooth protagonist, who’s low on heroism and high on introspection. Louise Doughty is an accessible, intelligent writer, whose previous novels have been up for some of England’s most prestigious literary prizes but have unfortunately never snared one. She’s done an impressive amount of homework–don’t think of reading this book without simultaneously doing some of your own. (Second Chances has made that task easy for you. See History Behind The Book: The 1965 Indonesian Massacres)
John Harper, whose true name is Nicolaas Den Herder, is an operative for an anonymous and sketchy Institute. The Institute, which is based in the Netherlands, acts as a fixer for the private sector, exhuming buried information and arranging emergency extractions from danger zones. Sometimes, too, it acts as a tool for covert governmental entities.
Harper’s career in the Institute is bounded by two watershed years in Indonesian history: the bloodbath of 1965 and the uprisings against Suharto in 1998. His chief asset for being the guy on the ground is his looks. He’s the child of a Dutch mother and Indonesian father, and he can go where no Dutchman dare venture.
When the novel opens, Harper is in a secluded hut in Bali, awaiting his assassination. Something has gone badly wrong with his assignment in Jakarta. Nonetheless, despite the ticking clock, Harper ventures into the adjoining village and begins an affair with Rita, another expat whose damaged psyche has drawn her overseas. Harper is damaged in his own way, and, in this case, likes attract.
During restless nights where retrospection is the only activity on the agenda and in confiding conversations with Rita, the details of Harper’s life emerge. He was born in a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia. His father was killed by the Japanese. These early tragedies presage the rootlessness and misfortune that dog Harper: a mother whose internment in the Japanese camp has in a sense liberated her from any sense of responsibility to others, including her son, and a failed marriage, itself tainted by death. Somewhere in the middle lies a brief, happy interlude under the care of a righteous, loving grandfather that ends catastrophically.
Harper reflects upon both his and Indonesia’s experiences during that harrowing period in 1965 and, most of all, about what it means to be the little guy ensnared in cataclysm. ” A coup only happened to the people it happened to,” he thinks. For the Indonesian on the street, “those events were a mere backdrop against the perpetual problem of where to find rice that day, how to pay for it, where to put your belongings when the river rose.”
He muses about his own role in 1965–as a courier of a CIA list of suspected Communists– and moralizes about issues of choice and complicity. “Those people were going to be killed anyway. The list might speed things up a bit, that’s all–and think of all the people who would have been killed if the Communists had succeeded in taking power. A man like him wasn’t a policy-maker. The big decisions could only be made by people who had all the facts. He, Harper, only knew a tiny percentage of the story–you had to look at the big picture, after all. He had been hired to pick up a leather case and deliver it somewhere else. If he hadn’t been hired to do that job, then someone else would have been.” Pawns are not supposed to reason why. He consoles himself by observing that evil people do not question themselves on their deathbeds. Is that yet another lie he tells himself? Are pawns innocent? All Harper knows for sure is that the men at the top of the chain–the men in suits–“always kept their own hands clean.”
So where’s the thrill in the thriller? It lies in the peeling away of the layers that explain why Harper is in Bali, trembling in a hut and looking over his shoulder. It lies in the question of whether the past has cut short Harper’s future or if there can be a second act with Rita. And it lies in whether paranoia is an occupational hazard of men like Harper or whether the men in the night with machetes are real. Or is that noise only the rain?