Book Review: Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates

Title: Black Water

Author: Joyce Carol Oates

Number of Pages: 154

Genre: Literary Fiction

Rating: B-

Recommended?: Yes

Based loosely on the Ted Kennedy case, Black Water is a quick read which uses repetitive language to develop an intensifying sense of dread. It’s the Fourth of July, and Kelly Kelleher decides to go home from a party at her friend’s parents’ house with a politician (simply known as ‘The Senator’) with the vague plan set forth to sleep with him. The Senator has been drinking and is still chugging down the alcohol while driving, with Kelly in the passenger seat. The car crashes, and a lot of Black Water focuses on Kelly’s thought process as she is trapped underwater and drowning, hoping desperately to be rescued and becoming increasingly confused and disoriented.


Black Water touches on different subjects, including mental illness, suicide, racism, and the death penalty, and sometimes it feels unfocused or low on actual material, but it definitely held my interest throughout the brief, incredibly grim narrative. The details of Kelly’s death by drowning was intense, I felt like I was in the car with her. All of the characters except Kelly are very weakly developed, and Kelly herself is not an extremely likable protagonist, though it is hard not to sympathize with her as she faces her impending death. We get a look at Kelly’s previous struggles, her desires for the future, and her prejudices, and we are struck by the senselessness of her death.


You basically know what’s going to happen early on, even if you don’t know anything about the real life case that inspired the novel (which I didn’t,) and while that robs the reader of the factor of surprise, the book still held my interest. Black Water returns to the scene of the accident again and again from different angles, focusing on the last hours of Kelly Kelleher’s life. It’s not a cheerful read in any way, shape, or form, but I think it was a really interesting idea for a novel and it was executed well.


I don’t think this book will stick with me as much as Zombie, the first novel I read by Joyce Carol Oates, but I found them both to be compelling and, despite or maybe because of the sordid subject matter, compulsively readable. Black Water is not nearly as fucked-up as Zombie, but it’s still quite uncomfortable to read in places, because of the details of Kelly’s suffering. Joyce Carol Oates is a very good writer who is not afraid to go into some dark places, and as an aspiring writer who writes stuff that isn’t exactly happy I can respect that. Joyce Carol Oates’ writing has a way of sucking me in and keeping my attention throughout, and I will be looking forward to more of her books in the future. 



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