Verdict: BLACK WATER is a haunting story beautifully told. Set in a near future of environmental catastrophe and ethnic strife, it is at once an urgent warning and an intimate meditation on memory, grief, and love.
Joseph Caspar is a disappointed writer, living with his wife Noelle in a city with air so dirty it can kill. Then an old college friend offers him a project he can’t turn down. Suddenly, he finds himself across an ocean in Agova, a country recovering from severe drought and ethnic strife, interviewing an enigmatic survivor named Alice Wolf who is still deciding how many of her secrets she wants to reveal.
BLACK WATER is that rare thing: a story of huge scope and implication that is also an intimate study of characters and relationships. The premise is the stuff of future headlines. A drought in a landlocked country called Agova leads the majority to syphon water away from the “Brickers,” a red-headed minority who once inhabited their own nation named Brikova. Some Brikovans form “Black Water” gangs to steal the water back, and the conflict escalates from there.
But the textbook summary doesn’t come close to replicating the experience of reading BLACK WATER because this very epic narrative is propelled by a series of conversations. The central conversation is the interview would-be writer Joseph Caspar conducts with Alice Wolf, an old Brikovan woman who lived through the conflict as a young girl. But Joseph is also led to the interview through conversations, with his wife, with the college friend who entrusts him with the project. And Alice’s narrative is centered conversations with her parents and her younger sister, Chessa.
Marie has a gift for detailing the ways words can shift the emotional balance between two people, so that you find yourself holding your breath during most of her characters’ encounters. Because she describes every gesture, pause, and facial tick, you feel as if you are at the table her characters. This attention to detail builds the tension and unease of the book. You have the feeling each conversation is building towards a devastating revelation, even if nothing particularly difficult is being said in that moment.
Marie’s focus on small moments also makes the world she narrates more real and, therefore, more frightening. One of Alice’s first memories of ethnic tension is the fact that the open-minded barber, who used to shave her father’s distinctive red hair, has his shop burned down. Because Alice is a child when it happens, what she remembers about the barbershop is spinning in an empty chair waiting for her father, and to her, the fire means “only an end to golden afternoons spent alone with Papa and the spinning chair.” You therefore experience the deterioration of Agova’s civil life as a series of small, personal losses, making it easier to imagine such a catastrophe creeping up on your own home.
While the difficult themes and narrative tension make BLACK WATER an unsettling read at times, it is also a decidedly beautiful one. Marie’s prose is simple and elegant. Sentences ripple over you like the water Agova fights over. An airplane “shrinks into a tiny metal dot”; Alice, in a pool, “watch[es] the blurred outlines of other girls passing beneath [her].” The lyrical prose makes reading BLACK WATER like dipping into a mountain pool: chilling, but you leave feeling more alive then when you went in.
~Olivia Rosane for IndieReader