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.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Jane Harper, Macmillan, Publisher, Setting

‘The Survivors’ by Jane Harper

Fiction – Kindle edition; Macmillan Australia; 384 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jane Harper’s latest novel The Survivors switches focus from the Queensland outback of her previous novel to the island state of Tasmania. Here, on the windswept coast of a small local community (the fictional Evelyn Bay) a young woman in town for the summer is murdered, her body found washed up on the beach in the early hours of the morning.

The crime is a reminder of a previous tragedy in which a 14-year-old girl went missing on the night of a big storm 12 years earlier. That same night, two local men, Finn and Toby, also died when their boat overturned in stormy seas.

The timing of the murder is unfortunate because Finn’s brother Kieran is back in town. Kieran blames himself for his elder brother’s death all those years ago and the occurrence of yet another tragedy triggers painful memories for him. He’s arrived in Evelyn Bay from Sydney — with his long-term girlfriend and young baby daughter in tow — to help his mother pack up the family home so she can move her husband, who has early-onset dementia, into a nursing home in Hobart.

The Survivors is essentially a murder mystery focussed on two women who lost their lives more than a decade apart. It’s mainly centred on Kieran and his family, and a small cohort of childhood friends, now adults, who have remained living in the town. It’s a slow burner, the kind of story that unfolds slowly but surely, and is much about guilt, redemption and family loyalty, as it is about trying to solve a murder.

What I liked

The number of potential suspects
The Survivors isn’t a traditional police procedural or even a typical crime novel. It’s essentially a murder mystery that is “solved” by a small cast of characters who piece together clues discovered by the police and their own “investigation” (I use the term loosely). There are plenty of would-be culprits — the mainland genre author who has purchased the big house in town, Kieran’s father who wanders the local area at strange times of the night, the young kitchen hand who drove the victim home from work, and so on. Every one of them could, potentially, be the murderer — and the fun is trying to guess who it might be. The ending, I have to say, is satisfactory — and not the person I suspected at all.

The setting
In previous novels, Harper has faithfully captured a diversity of Australian settings, from a small rural community battling the ongoing effects of drought in The Dry to an outback cattle station that has to generate its own electricity it is so remote in The Lost Man.

In The Survivors, she captures what it is like to live in a small coastal community, some 900-strong, the kind of place that is super-busy with tourists in the summer and quiet and closed-in on itself when the season is over. It’s also the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business (or thinks they do). She nails the gossip, innuendo and rumours that can fester when the facts aren’t truly known, and shows how this can spread like wildfire, especially via community online pages. She also nails what it is like to grow up in those places and to never truly escape them because even if you move away and only return on holiday, the locals think they “know” you and don’t think twice about casting judgement.

The dementia aspect
The depiction of dementia is handled sensitively and clearly shows the burdens placed on the primary caregiver — in this case, Kieran’s 64-year-old mother — and the family members who have to adjust to a new reality in which their loved one barely recognises them.

What I didn’t like

The dead woman trope
The Survivors is yet another crime novel where a dead woman is the central plot point. Harper doesn’t sensationalise the murder and makes reference to the fact that women must negotiate the world in a different way to men (never walking alone down dark streets, for example), but it still remains a story that relies on an old trope that I, personally, am incredibly sick of. It really is time to change the story.

The repetition
There’s a lot of repetition in this story, a lot of rehashing old ground, a lot of telling us that Kieran, for instance, has been wracked with guilt for more than a decade, and that the storm 12 years ago did more than wreck trees and buildings, it wrecked lives too. Lose half the repetition and this story would be not only leaner, but it would also be stronger, too.

The clichés
As much as Harper is great at capturing small-town life, it does seem that she only creates places solely populated by white people. While this story does feature a “half-Singaporean” (this is how Kieran describes his girlfriend), everyone else in this story is white. In fact, everyone in this novel feels like a stereotype: the guys are all sporty types, there’s a town beauty, a hard-working put-upon mother, a bumbling male police officer. Do I need to go on?

An entertaining read

No doubt you are going to see loads of reviews of this book in the coming weeks and months. And it will be nominated for awards and top the best-seller lists both here in Australia and the UK, where Harper has a good following.

But this is a fairly average crime novel. By all means, read it for the setting and the fun of guessing who committed the crime, but don’t expect to have your world set on fire. Sometimes, though, that’s enough, especially if you are just looking for a bit of temporary escapism. The Survivors is an entertaining read, no more, no less.

It will be published in the UK in hardcover next January and the USA next February. A Kindle version is already available in the UK.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2020

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Author, Book review, Macmillan, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime, USA

‘The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir’ by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

The Fact of a Body

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Macmillan; 336 pages; 2017.

True crime meets memoir in this unusual and striking non-fiction book published to critical acclaim last year.

The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is a raw and uncompromising tale about child sex abuse and the far-reaching legacy it leaves on individuals, families and communities.

On death row

The book centres on a horrific crime carried out in 1992 by Ricky Langley, who was sentenced to death for sexually molesting and then murdering a six-year-old boy in America’s deep south.

A decade later the author, who was a 25-year-old law student at the time, took a summer internship, where she helped work on Langley’s retrial. As an opponent of the death penalty, Marzano-Lesnevich thought it would be a great opportunity to fight for what she believed in, but she had an unexpected reaction:

When I first watched Ricky Langley’s confession video it upended everything I believed and challenged the core of who I was. I saw Ricky and my instinctive reaction was I want him to die. It unearthed something deeply unresolved in my life. For a while I thought I should just leave the past behind but eventually I came to realise that could no longer be the case.

The book then segues into Marzano-Lesnevich’s painful excavation of her own dark past: she was sexually molested by her maternal grandfather for many years. When she eventually told her parents, they simply swept it under the carpet and it was never discussed or mentioned again.

Not traditional reportage

The Fact of a Body intertwines both these narrative threads — Langley’s life as a paedophile and Marzano-Lesnevich’s deeply personal account of what it is like to be a survivor of child abuse — in a compelling, raw and forthright way, but I had some issues with the telling of it.

The author tells Langley’s story by piecing together documents in the public domain — court transcripts, news articles and television reportage — but uses her imagination to fill in the gaps — for instance, the internal monologues and feelings of the murdered boy’s mother. This means the gap between fact and fiction becomes blurred in places.

That said, this technique does allow the reader to see the crime from different perspectives and provides a much more rounded picture than perhaps traditional reportage might have allowed. But it still made me feel uncomfortable.

The prose style also tends towards verbosity, but once you get used to it the subject matter takes precedent.

On the whole The Fact of a Body is a courageous, frightening and deeply unsettling book that paints an empathetic portrait of a complex man who committed a horrendous crime. But it’s also a rather brutal and forensic examination of a respectable middle class family that knowingly harboured a child abuser within its own midst. If nothing else, both stories — the murder and the memoir — show how crimes don’t fit into neat narratives, there are always shades of grey and even with all the facts, pinning down the truth can be fraught with difficulty.

Thanks to Elle Thinks, who named it on her 2017 books of the year list, for bringing it to my attention.

Author, Book review, Macmillan, Martin Sixsmith, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘The Litvinenko File: The True Story of a Death Foretold’ by Martin Sixsmith


Non-fiction – hardcover; MacMillan; 320 pages; 2007.

Anyone who was living in London in November 2006 will know that the hot topic of conversation — in the pubs, at work, on the news and in the papers — was the poisoning of Alexander “Sasha” Litvinenko.

Mr Litvinenko, a former member of the KGB and its successor the FSB, was granted political asylum (with his wife and child) in the UK in 2000. An outspoken critic of the Russian Government, he fell ill on November 1, 2006 and died three weeks later. Doctors could not say what caused his death, but it later emerged he had been poisoned by radioactive material known as polonium-210.

This book by the BBC’s former Moscow correspondent, Martin Sixsmith, explores Litvinenko’s murder and looks at who might gain the most from his death. During the course of his research Sixsmith discovered that Litvinenko had made many enemies. “What I found out about Litvinenko’s past,” he writes, “both astounded me and threw up so many potential reasons for his murder that I ended my research more surprised he survived as long as he did than that he eventually fell victim to the assassins who sought him out in London.”

He structures the book into six parts, beginning with Litvinenko’s funeral (he was buried in Highgate Cemetery) and how the poisoning might have occurred (was it at the Millennium Hotel or the Itsu sushi bar?), before exploring Litvinenko’s former life in Russia and his subsequent falling out with the man who was to become president, Vladimir Putin. It then comes full circle, and looks at the Scotland Yard investigation, tracing the polonium trail and unearthing the many suspects who might be to blame for his death.

What emerges is a fascinating portrait of a flawed man living in a dark world of shady characters. While many in his situation might have chosen to lay low, Litvinenko did the opposite, seeing it as his duty to speak out against those he saw as corrupt or dangerous. Ultimately, this was his undoing.

But Litvinenko’s death was no ordinary death. Sixsmith describes it as the “world’s first act of international nuclear terrorism”. It caused a major public health scare with a trail of radioactive contamination spreading across London (and two British Airways planes) and sparked a major diplomatic crisis between the UK and Russia. (Relations are still strained, especially now that Scotland Yard will never be able to charge the chief suspect Andrei Lugovoi who became a deputy in Russia’s new parliament earlier this week, earning him immunity from prosecution.)

As much as I was fascinated by the poisoning of a Russian exile in such a dramatic and public way, I had half expected The Litvinenko File to be a relatively dull book, weighed down by too many facts and complicated Russian history I’d struggle to understand. But Sixsmith knows how to write a narrative in an exciting way, ending each chapter with a cliff hanger so that you feel you really must keep reading to find out what happens next.

And his theory about who is responsible for the death — and why they carried it out — is a totally believable one. But if you want to find out whodunnit, then stop reading this review and get your hands on a copy of the book instead…