Author, Book review, Fiction, Joyce Carol Oates, literary fiction, Macmillan, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Black Water’ by Joyce Carol Oates

Fiction – hardcover; MacMillan; 156 pages; 1992.

I first heard about Joyce Carol Oates’ novella Black Water via Cathy’s recent 6 Degrees of Separation post.

This slim book is based on the infamous 1969 Chappaquiddick incident in which Senator Ted Kennedy’s car crashed into the water, killing his 28-year-old passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who was trapped inside.

Oates transposes this real-life tragedy to a different time (the early 1990s) and place (Grayling Island, Maine), and tells it from the point of view of the female victim.

A fateful meeting

When 26-year-old Kelly Kelleher meets The Senator at a Fourth of July party she is immediately enamoured by him, not least because she wrote her thesis on him and his three campaigns for the Senate. She harbours a dream to work on his presidential campaign.

The much older politician (he’s in his 50s), who has been separated from his wife for 30 years, is immediately struck by the young blonde woman with the green eyes, and the pair hit it off, so much so that they exchange a secret kiss and then go for a long drive.

It’s during this drive, in a race to get to the last ferry that evening, that the Senator’s rented Toyota leaves the road, crashes through a barricade and ends upside-down in the brackish water. The Senator manages to escape, but Kelly is trapped inside, unable to get out because her legs are pinned by twisted metal.

In her shock not knowing at first where she was, what tight-clamped place this was, what darkness, not knowing what had happened because it had happened so abruptly like a scene blurred with speed glimpsed from a rushing window and there was blood in her eyes, her eyes were wide open staring and sightless, her head pounding violently where the bone was cracked, she knew the bone was cracked believing that it would be through this fissure the black water would poor to extinguish her life unless she could find a way to escape unless he will be back to help me of course.

The narrative is largely comprised of Kelly’s thoughts as she realises she is trapped and that The Senator is not coming back to rescue her. As she dies, her thoughts are a jumble of memories, mainly recent ones, as she recalls events at the party, snippets of conversation, the unexpected (but delicious) kiss she receives and the attention The Senator lavishes on her.

The chapters are short, sometimes just a page long, and the prose style alternates between long, breathless sentences, and short, choppy ones, reflecting Kelly’s changing moods – from excitement to disbelief to fear and panic.

It’s an easy book to read, even if the contents are occasionally heartbreaking, for here is a happy carefree young woman who has had her life cut abruptly short by a man drunk behind the wheel — and the man has now fled the scene.

Unfortunately, Black Water, which was first published in 1992, is currently out of print. I purchased mine secondhand online via Abebooks.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

13 thoughts on “‘Black Water’ by Joyce Carol Oates”

    1. I have to admit the repetition grated on me; I thought the point was laboured somewhat and maybe the whole piece might have worked better as a short story. But that’s the editor in me, wanting everything pared back and seamless. But yes, I enjoyed this and thought it very powerful. Interesting to read it back to back with The Language of Birds, another story giving a female victim her rightful place in history.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Is this your first JCO, Kim? I can’t recall seeing you blog about any others, but I’m glad to see you giving her a go. I read Black Water a while ago and I’ll confess I really don’t remember it very well at all, except that it wasn’t one of my favourites. I tend to prefer her longer novels (We Were the Mulvaneys, Broke Heart Blues, Missing Mom, You Must Remember This, and My Sister My Love are ones that stand out for me, and even her latest Night Sleep Death The Stars is pretty good and a surprisingly quick read for 800+ pages). Some of her short stories can be very good but once you’ve read a handful of collections you do start to notice how often she repeats the same material, whereas with her novels it’s more a case of her returning to and expanding upon certain themes (the nature of the relationship between Kelly and the Senator in this one sounds very typically Oates). The short breathless sentences are very much a feature of her writing, along with lots of Trumpian all-caps and exclamation marks – it’s a very unique style and instantly recognisable.


    1. Well spotted, David, this is my first JCO. I have tried and abandoned others in the past (long ago, possibly before this blog) so I’ve always (unfairly) assumed she probably wasn’t for me. But having read and liked this one I will definitely give her another go. I’m hoping my local library may help out on this score.


    1. Thanks, Jacqui. Yes, the disorientation and confusion of the crash is nicely mirrored by the style of this story. I wasn’t sure about all the repetition in it, but I suspect that’s deliberate to hammer home the point that, yes, this woman *is* losing her life here because of some foolhardy, irresponsible behaviour by someone old enough to know better.


    1. Ah yes, hadn’t thought of that one… though the JCO is much leaner and not quite as surreal or as chaotic as the Flanagan. When Kelly is dying her thoughts are actually very well ordered and neat, much like she lived her life I expect.


        1. She only really panicks towards the end when she realises she won’t be rescued and the pocket of air she is breathing is running out and she’s going to have to start swallowing water! Gruesome, actually.


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