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A blog for everything bookish

Monday, 6 February 2012

Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates

I'm not American and I didn't grow up in the 60s so the story of Mary Jo Kopechne and her accident with then US Senator Ted Kennedy, and all the controversy that surrounded it. So I don't know if I was missing something or not, not knowing the history on which this story was (loosely) related. But on finishing the book, and reading the history afterwards, I don't think I lost out in any way and, perhaps, untainted by expectation or opinion, it was actually beneficial.

So after that long-winded introduction which tells you nothing, let me tell you a little about Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates.

The story traces the death of Kelly Kelleher, a young journalist/teacher/political activist who meets The Senator (unnamed throughout) at a Fourth of July party, sparks up an attraction with him, and leaves the party with him. The Senator has been drinking, and they're driving to the ferry terminal when the Senator takes a wrong turn. Down a dirt road they spin off on a turn, the car pitches into the water. He gets out, she doesn't.

Using starkly poetic prose Oates explores those key events: Kelly's first meeting with the Senator, her decision to go with him, the accident, her death. In repetitious detail and circular timeframes she goes over and over these events. Kelly's motivation, her fears, her feelings, her disappointment, her vulnerability. The Senator's attractiveness. The opportunity. The dark road, the black water. Over and over, in a short novel with short chapters, with repetition, we go over and over the points that led her to here, to her death. There's a real strength in Oates use of language, in the poetic devices she employs to tease out the terrible realisation, that we're watching (reading) a girl's death. That this is a real girl, with real feelings. That she expected to be saved. That in the end, she believed he would save her when in fact he let her down, he let her die in the black water.

And the prose is the real strength of this novel, that while Oates labours the point it doesn't feel laboured, it feels delicate, vulnerable. And you feel like you're right there with Kelly, experiencing her last moments. A painful read, especially in light of the true events which inspired them. She is at once beautiful, innocent and tragic 'You know you're someone's little girl, oh yes' and yet a sharp political activist with keen views and a determination to make a difference 'There is no such thing as 'my' generation, Senator. We're divided by race, class, education, politics - even sexual self-definition. The only thing that links us is our - separateness'.

And in the end it is the separateness that counts. He survives. He survives by using her face as a stepping stone to push himself to safety, while she dies slowly, revolving around the circumstances that led her to her death, sucking on a tiny, shrinking pocket of air.

A short but affecting novel. My first Oates. The first of many.

Black Water receives a slippery 9 out of 10 Biis.