In Black Water, Joyce Carol Oates plumbs the literal and figurative depths of death and suffering. This is a technically brilliant novel. Who else could lay out in stark bareness the whole plot of the book on the first page and then page by page, chapter by chapter, build up the meat of the book around these initial naked facts?
When I began reading I wondered if I had somehow started wrong. Such a startling blow to have all the horror of the book explode on the first page. And then to turn the page and re-read the same horror with a few more details added in. And then each subsequent chapter with its own unfolding of the same horror. To finally finish Part One and hope that somehow Part Two would go in a different direction, only to find that it only went deeper into the suffering of Kelly, the main character. As Kelly goes through hallucinations on her way to death, you start to wonder which parts of the book are true, and which are her imagination playing tricks on you.
The basic plot of the book is uniquely un-unique in itself. Pulled from the history books and much wondered events of the past, the plot mimic the facts known and details speculated from Senator Edward Kennedy’s accident on Chappaquiddick Island. In the book the character is just called The Senator, but the details are unmistakable.
Black Water isn’t the kind of book that you enjoy. The reader is worn down by the details of the suffering and in knowing that there is no hope of a different ending than the obvious. However, Oates’ writing will keep you reading through the whole book. It is paced beautifully and the prose is outstanding, even if the subject is difficult.
This is the first of Oates’ books that I have read and I’m looking forward to reading more.