It took me just under two hours to read Black Water; a quick read, I flew through it, mesmerised by Oates peculiar combination of lyricism and social satire. A story about dying, about living, about the death of life and living in death, Black Water takes a tragic true story and moulds it into a narrative conveying the futility of the American dream. It presents a world of Sweet Valley High all grown up and turned distinctly sour. Good looks and academic prowess mean nothing in the murky realms of patriarchy. Political idealism is useless when you are trapped five feet under water. Chivalry has gone quite literally out of the window.
Kelly Kelleher in her amatory adventure with an ageing Liberal Senator finds not love, but only the greatest truth; death. The narative is dreamy, fluid, scenes repeat, Kelly's childhood is juxtaposed with scenes from her time at college, scenes of her trapped, drowning in the car. Time past, present and future collide in this macabre journey. The reader floats with Kelly, hoping that she will be rescued. Futile hope; the story is a strong condemnation both of power and its abuse by men such as the senator (he uses Kelly's head as a lever with which to prise himself out of the car) and perhaps too of the anachronistic female belief in male honour and the belief in being rescued.
Kellys are everywhere; victims of a society obsessed with looks over substance, theirs is a constant effort at reinvention and conformation to the cultural ideal. Oates reaches out to these lost girls , extolling them to learn from this cautionary tale. To learn that they can rely on no one, that life can be a lethal game, and beneath the vestiges of power and desire there lies a treacherous and potentially murderous reality.
Oates exposes the corruptibility of power and the naivete of youth whilst all the time conducting a fascinating and poignant exploration into the process of death by drowning.
When you have savoured the book, think finally of this; Oates designed its length to reflect the time it would have taken the original Kelly to die in the submerged car. This shocking yet incredibly effective piece of authorial intervention leaves one simultaneously chilled by this literary encounter with death yet also buoyed by the lack of sentimentalism. Highly recommended.