It came to him then, what was going to happen. They were going to kill him. Take a break for a while, Amsterdam had said. Go up to the hills, we have a little place outside of town, it’s been used before. Have a rest, you’ve earned it. When we’ve talked to the West Coast, we’ll let you know. He had wondered, at the time, why they had to talk to the West Coast at all. If Amsterdam was certain he was finished they should have recalled him immediately. Why send him up to the hills – unless they wanted him out of the picture if the press ran with the story? Well, that was what he had thought at the time. Now, though, in the dark of night, the decision to send him here took on a different meaning.
We meet John Harper in the hills on an Indonesian island, waiting for the boys he is convinced are coming to kill him. The only person he has contact with is Kadek, a servant who brings him food and performs some basic housekeeping.
Harper has been to Indonesia before; to Jakarta in 1965 when he witnessed some horrific moments in the anti-Communist riots. The story that were are told about him is punctured by these moments of violence.
Near the beginning of the novel, Harper decides he’s going to go into the nearest town for a few things. There he meets a woman, Rita, who he drinks cocktails with and then spends the night in a local hotel. The following morning, she leaves without speaking to him. But Harper’s feelings about her are somewhat different:
Christ, he thought, I survived a rioting mob in Jakarta not long ago and then began to wonder if my life could be in danger from the people who have employed me for three decades – yet one encounter with a woman and I’ve turned into this. He realised he was enjoying this image of himself: the hard-bitten man on the veranda in the jungle with his whisky and his cigarettes.
But it’s not over for him and Rita – he bumps into her in the marketplace a few days later and a relationship begins. This is partly a device (albeit a very well-constructed one) to allow Harper to tell his story. Doughty avoids it seeming like a device as the reader is unaware initially that Harper is relating his story to Rita at the same time he tells us.
We’re told when he meets Rita that he’s an economist working in Jakarta. We’ve already had several hints that there’s much more to Harper’s job than analysing figures, however, and it soon becomes clear that he works for some sort of intelligence service although not a government based one.
The story we’re told in the second part of the novel goes right back to Harper’s childhood and to me, is the most compelling part of the book. Possibly because it’s the only section which feels as though it may be the whole truth (whatever the truth is in a work of fiction). Harper was born Nicolaas in a concentration camp. He’s Dutch, of mixed heritage. His father was beheaded by the Japanese and his mother spends her life trying to escape the horrors she’s endured. His childhood focuses on his mother’s marriage to an American black man called Michael, the time they spend living with Michael’s father, who Nicolaas calls Poppa, and the death of his younger brother, Bud. It’s the insights into Harper’s childhood that show us why he’s become the man he appears to be.
The power of transience: in motion, you could be whoever you wanted to be. When had he learned this? On that solo Atlantic journey, with the label around his neck? Or earlier, at the age of three, watching his mother cadge cigarettes from different passengers or sailors, varying the details of who she was according to whether she was talking to a man or a woman, a sailor or a fellow passenger? Whatever lessons were learned then, chief amongst them was this: if you don’t want people to know who you are, keep moving.
If you’re expecting something similar to Doughty’s previous novel, Apple Tree Yard, you might be disappointed with Black River. In many ways, it’s a different beast. Doughty considers identity, the West’s ignorance of the East, how the past can affect the future. This is very much a character study, albeit one driven by violent disruption in both a personal life and a country. However, the novels do share some similarities: what affect love can have on someone; what people are driven to do to save themselves, and a narrator who may or may not be reliable.
Black River is an interesting, fear-driven novel. Doughty poses many questions about Harper and the part he’s played in events. The question for the reader is, how much you do you trust him?
Louise Doughty will appear at Jersey Festival of Words with fellow thriller writers JS Law and John Samuel for a discussion about the thriller genre. The event takes place on Saturday 1st October, 17.45 in Jersey Opera House. Tickets are available here.
Thanks to Faber and Faber for the review copy.