Wynn Wheldon

Scarred by the past

Her unsettling story— involving a mystery man with a dark past — will appeal to all who revel in extreme moral quandary

Scarred by the past
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Black Water

Louise Doughty

Faber, pp. 344, £

In Indonesia in 1965–6 half a million communists and supposed communist sympathisers were murdered by a range of civilian and paramilitary organisations under the direction of the army.

This is the setting for Louise Doughty’s grim, ambitious novel. John Harper is a young operative in Jakarta, working for a Dutch private intelligence operation, providing information for corporations and doing covert work for various governments, chiefly the American. The title refers to the polluted water of Jakarta’s canals, but also to the water of the country’s paddy fields. To the news-attentive reader there is also the echo of the Blackwater private security operation that got into trouble in Iraq.  Most of all, perhaps, it refers to the rain that disguises the approach of death, blocking out sound and traces of movement.

During the massacres Harper commits an act of which he is deeply ashamed. Much of the tension of the book, which somewhat confusingly goes back and forth in time and place, from the USA to Holland to Indonesia, depends on the slow revelation of the details of Harper’s shameful act and its consequences.

But it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for Harper, despite his moral anguish. That he remains vague and distant may be deliberate, but it is hard on the reader when this figure is almost the only character in the story. Admittedly, one of Doughty’s subjects is the topical matter of ‘identity’. Just who is John Harper (real name Nicolaas den Herder)? Is he Dutch, American or Indonesian; is he black or white? He is described at one point as ‘a citizen of nowhere’, elsewhere as a ‘shadowman’.

There are others: Poppa, a Morgan Freeman-like wise old avuncular civil rights lawyer, and Rita, a love interest who is also scarred by life and who offers a slim chance of redemption. The point of view, though, is always Harper’s. The book might have achieved the intensity it strives for had it been written in the first person rather than the third. Often the author’s own opinions seem to peep through the cracks of her hero’s. He is too much her avatar.

The set pieces are done with an almost P.M. Hubbard-like ability to unsettle, and there are domestic scenes, often heavy with significance, that are so well rendered that they approach the comic. Doughty is very good on mannerisms.

This is a book for Graham Greene and John le Carré lovers, misanthropes often, who delight in extreme moral quandary.  The rain it raineth every day.