Friday, September 04, 2020
(Disclaimer: I’ve known Paul Waters for many years and I’m one of the many supporters who helped fund the publication of this book.)
Blackwatertown, by Paul Waters (Unbound)
Sinister goings-on in rural Northern Ireland aren’t exactly brand new territory for fiction writers (Colin Bateman comes to mind) but Paul Waters offer a sardonic yet sensitive take on the genre. His protagonist, Macken, is a Catholic cop in the predominantly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, at a time when systemic bigotry against the religious minority was commonplace. Relocated to a village on the border with the Irish Republic, he follows his own private quest for truth while always being alert to his outsider status; a resurgence of IRA violence gives his colleagues plenty of excuses to query his loyalties. Love and a potential escape route arrive in the form of the enchanting Aoife, but will happiness ultimately be dashed from his grasp?
The location is crucial to the story. The nature of the border as an indistinct, liminal space – it defines the boundaries of the policemen’s authority, yet seems impossible to define itself – adds a sort of metaphysical oddness to what is essentially a period thriller, with the slightest whispers of Flann O’Brien. And I don’t think it’s too fanciful to see Thomas Hardy as an influence too, with the landscape as much an active, brooding participant in the narrative as the human characters. It’s grounded in the reality of time and place but, as the author reminds us in an afterword, it’s also a fiction, and the reader has to negotiate that fuzzy border too.
It’s not perfect. Sometimes Macken’s internal monologues can drag a little, and I suspect a more ruthless editor would have ordered Waters to slaughter his innocents and trim the length by 10 or 15 per cent. But the pace picks up smartly in the last 100 or so pages with a succession of genuinely shocking (but ultimately plausible) plot twists and a rather beautiful, if melancholy, coda. If you want a thoughtful thriller peopled with believable, flawed characters rather than monochrome, two-fisted ciphers – and maybe a gentle history lesson on the side – read Blackwatertown.
PS: There’s another key plot point that plays around with the idea of fiction becoming a reality, that reminded me, of all things, of the last episode of The Wire, which is clearly a good thing but, y’know, spoilers.