Attica Locke - Black Water Rising (4 stars)

Attica Locke - Black Water Rising

(Serpent’s Tail)

It’s perhaps unsurprising that the most vivid thing about Attica Locke’s vibrant debut novel is its key protagonist. Her former black civil rights activist turned ambulance-chasing attorney, Jay Porter, is partly based on the author’s father whom, one assumes, retained his scruples. Having exchanged his ideals for income, Porter nevertheless finds it increasingly difficult to make ends meet in Reagan-era, oil-oriented Houston, Texas, and it’s this wits-end state we find him in at the opening of the book that makes the character so dramatically compelling.

A low-rent moonlight cruise along the city bayou proves to be an underwhelming birthday celebration for his beloved wife Bernie, but when Porter discovers and drags a mute white woman out of the water, his shabby existence is further compromised by one of those nasty webs of intrigue, here involving the local law enforcement, politicians and labour unionists. Cutting back and forth between the past and the present, Porter’s activities as a radical involved with the Black Panthers on the University of Houston campus (which ended with him nearly being jailed for a long time) unfold in stark contrast to, but also convincingly explain his reluctance to take a principled stand and do the right thing.

Locke, whose day job is screenwriting and is currently writing a HBO mini-series about the civil rights movement, gets the blend of social commentary, characterisation, mystery and action just right. And the question of whether or not the book’s flawed protagonist will achieve some measure of redemption makes Black Water Rising a truly gripping read.

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