“This one straddles the commercial/literary divide so well that it’ll appeal to anyone who likes a good read” – Black Water by Louise Doughty
John Harper is a spy. Sort of. Though his name’s not John, or Harper, and his job’s never really fully explained: he’s a mercenary, it’s implied, rather than a gun-toting Bond dude, and he’s in Bali when the book opens – he’s on a leave of absence. Or is he? He’s done bad things, anyway, secret things, and he’s expecting bad secret things to be done to him in return. They’re coming to get him, in fact – them being his employers. Or are they? And what’s the deal with Rita, the woman he’s falling for while he waits? Is somebody after her, too? It’s all rather cryptic. But that’s the life of a (sort of) spy, right? Confused? Good. Doughty’s a master storyteller, and this is a spy thriller with a twist, so the answers don’t come easy and the stakes are high. And we’re not going to ruin the plot and all its brilliant tension by setting it out here, so, sadly for you, we’re not going to un-tease the tangles.
What we will say is: John – real name Nicholaas – is a middle-aged half-Dutch, half-Indonesian man who was born in an internment camp, whose dad was executed by the Japanese, and whose mum never really recovered: an alcoholic and a serial monogamist, she pays little attention to her young son, who’s partly raised by his American step-grandparents until more tragedy strikes (again, no spoilers!). When he’s an adult, Nicholaas is recruited by his shady employers, changes his name to the anodyne John Harper, and is sent back to Indonesia as a ground operative, useful to his bosses because his mixed-race heritage means he can pass as a local. He gets mixed up in the 1965 massacres and ends up taking a desk job for a long time afterwards, until he’s finally sent back – and the novel is set in the aftermath of this return. There’s a lot of flashback here; the book’s chronology is complex, which means the unfolding of Harper’s situation and psychology is also complex, but massively engaging, as every part of his timeline is compelling in a different way: Doughty manages to get the US Civil Rights movement into the same web as the history of violence in Bali, which you’d have to admit is a pretty deft piece of plotting. She doesn’t get bogged down in the history either – she’s not lecturing us or writing a historical saga, so we get what we need and are left to do our own digging afterwards (and the detail she does supply is fascinating: we can well imagine an army of readers seeking out treatises on the military dictatorship as soon as they set Black Water down); for all the external drama, the coups and the wars, the book’s really about Harper’s internal struggle to come to terms with what’s happened to him, what might soon happen to him, what he’s done and what he might yet do. A psychological spy thriller, then. Though Doughty’s written a truckload of previous novels, the only one we’ve read to date has been the superb Apple Tree Yard, and though there’s not much common ground, from a plot or a setting perspective, between this book and that, it’s clear enough that Doughty’s brilliant at working through the consequences of action: the former book uses an affair to trigger a study of how we, as a society, treat women, sex and violence; this one uses huge political upheaval as a way of getting to the heart of one’s sense of oneself, as Harper, falling abruptly in love, struggles belatedly with his familial, ethnic, political and professional identities: who is he, anyway?
Any Cop?: For sure: it’s a compelling character study propped up by some high-flying spy/war action and a good old family drama. This one straddles the commercial/literary divide so well that it’ll appeal to anyone who likes a good read. And, you know, read Apple Tree Yard while you’re at it – it’ll blow you away.
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- June 6, 2016 / 9:00 am