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Two Psychological Thrillers by a Master

February 5, 2017
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John Harper’s hut sits above the Ayung River in Bali (Photo: Bryce Alcock)

Louise Doughty, Black Water, 2016
Louise Doughty, Apple Tree Yard, 2013

John Harper, the protagonist of Black Water, is an operative in a private intelligence agency. In 1965 he is sent to Indonesia, his country of birth, and is there when the military use the September 30 coup as a pretext to launch the massacres of people accused of being communist.

blackwaterHarper’s assignments involve him in these crimes – for example, he passes on a CIA hit list to the military – and as a result he becomes mentally ill. Eventually he is able to take on a desk job for the agency.

In 1998 he is sent back to Jakarta prior to the riots that led to the end of the Suharto regime. There he stuffs up badly, and the agency sends him to Bali to “rest”. The book opens with Harper lying awake in a hut near Ubud, terrified that the agency is arranging his murder.

What leads a man to join such a company and to commit crimes in carrying out his duties? How did he become the man who, when his baby daughter dies shortly after her birth, thinks, “at least you have been spared life.” He is defined by his past, and Doughty tells his story, beginning with his chaotic childhood.

This backstory alternates with what is happening in the present, in Bali, where he meets Rita, a teacher recovering from her own tragedy. He tells her some of what he had done, but not his most terrible acts. Can these two damaged people find peace together?

The narrative tension that impelled me to keep reading Black Water came firstly from the complexity and reality of Harper’s character, and secondly from Doughty’s technique of revealing plot points piecemeal, so that you don’t know the full story until the end. Doughty has spoken about her style:

 

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Louise Doughty (Author’s website)

“I love flashbacks and revelations and foreshadowing – but you have to hold two versions of the novel in your head at the same time: what you know about the book and what your reader knows at any given point are often quite different. It can be fiendishly complicated but it’s essential that it reads naturally on the page.”

Black Water is more than a thriller. It explores difficult questions about personal responsibility and how we may become part of the machinery of oppression and exploitation. It examines how we use simplistic reasoning to avoid difficult decisions: “If I don’t do this job, someone else will. If my company doesn’t invest in this mad and murderous regime, another will.”

appletreeyard-418x640Doughty’s previous novel, Apple Tree Yard, tells a very different story – a courtroom drama set in London – but it shares many similarities with Black Water. It is also a psychological thriller in which the main character is drawn into a destructive course of action. Yvonne is a respected scientist and respectable wife and mother who embarks on a torrid affair that eventually leads to her trial for murder. The structure of the two books is similar. Both use time shifts, flashbacks and foreshadowing. Black Water begins in the present, and Apple Tree Yard starts at a late and critical point of the trial. Both have a killer revelation near the end. Both novels reveal a writer at the top of her game.

A TV mini-series based on Apple Tree Yard has just screened in the UK, gaining rave reviews, condemnations and controversy. While capturing the complexity of Black Water on film would be more difficult, if done well it would be a disturbing but riveting movie.

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