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May 21, 2010

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

Does Attica Locke ever do atmosphere in her first novel Black Water Rising. It’s the summer of 1981 in Houston, Texas, and the temperatures are soaring, along with the oil prices, the one tied to the other as lawyer Jay Porter tries not to overuse the air-con so as to conserve gasoline. His wife Bernadine is just weeks away from giving birth to their first child, and Porter is barely earning a living practicing law on his own, in an office in a strip mall. One night on a boat cruise along Buffalo Bayou, as the two are celebrating Bernie’s birthday, they hear a gunshot and a scream from somewhere on the shore.

Porter’s first instinct is to stay out of it– the FBI file left over from his student activist past in the civil rights movement has taught him as much. Urged on by his wife, however, Jay jumps into the bayou and finds himself inextricably embroiled in a crime that involves some of Houston’s most powerful forces.

Locke ties the strands of this narrative together with ease– how the mysterious white woman Jay rescues from the bayou is connected to the labour unrest over which Houston’s dockworkers are threatening to strike. How Houston’s controversial new female mayor is connected to Jay Porter’s radical past. How Jay’s troubled early life is affecting Jay as he awaits the birth of his first child. What all this has to do with the fact that he’s always packing a gun, terrified of what lies around the next corner. Though he’s been terrified for good reason lately– since he pulled the woman out of the water, other people have turned up dead, threats have been made on his own life and his wife’s, and someone seems desperate for him to keep his mouth shut about what he’s seen.

There is always music playing in the background, or the late night talk-radio going out over the airwaves as Jay drives around town. All of this adding to the heightened atmosphere, sense of impending something, the pulse of the city over those sweltering summer days and nights. Locke creates and sustains terrific suspense throughout her narrative, displaying her screenwriting background. Car chases, gunshots and fights down stair flights drive the narrative forward. Porter is a compelling and layered character, a driving force in his own right. For the last couple of years, I’ve been afflicted with a late-onset thing for crime-fiction, and Porter is everything a reader could want from such a book.

Black Water Rising has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize, perhaps by its un-literary nature a longshot. But I can see why it was included, and how the list is better for it. Locke defies all convention about the kind of fiction women are supposed to write, about what crime fiction is supposed to be like. Her characterization is strong, her prose is punchy, her maneuvering of plot a most impressive feat. This is a really good book, unputdownable, the only Orange Prize shortlister I’ve ever called my Dad about to say, “You’ve got to read this!”. It’s a book that proves that commercial fiction can be amazing, and that in itself is really accomplishment enough.

One thought on “Black Water Rising by Attica Locke”

  1. I couldn’t agree more: it’s a readily recommendable book for sure!

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