Sunday, 16 August 2015

Black Waters by Julia Jones, reviewed by Dennis Hamley

This is the fifth novel in the Strong Winds sequence and is a tough book dealing with tough – and urgent – questions.   Here, the emphasis is on Xanthe, whose prototype is Arthur Ransome’s Nancy Blackett.  Black, vulnerable yet superbly strong and resourceful, she is the outsider in this story, which could easily be subtitled ‘Xanthe Alone.’ For there is much ranged against her.  

Julia Jones has a genius for portraying evil, which she's already shown in the Strong Winds sequence from The Salt-Stained Book onwards. Here, the contagion  starts during the Olympic yachting trials, where Xanthe’s main rival is the beautiful, rich, ominously-named Madrigal  Shryke. I was creased up with anger at Madrigal. I could hear her speak: I could recognise her particular brand of vitriolic nastiness and utter vindictiveness.  One of the many virtues of this novel is the satisfyingly unexpected nature of her eventual destiny, which suggests surface nastiness comes with deep-rooted character defects.

And this capacity for evil is not confined to Madrigal's devilish articulacy. It spreads into society generally: the Essex coast and the corporate future it seems destined for become a metaphor for our whole society.  It alarmingly raises a central  problem. As Jan Needle asked in a recent blog, are the very rich intentionally criminal? Is the corporate ideal  incompatible with any democratic version of the good life?  Julia Jones’s dramatisation of this mentality in the microcosm of the Essex Blackwater suggests that it is and its far-reaching consequences are now unambiguous. But this is also a superb mystery story. Xanthe, as a way of trying to blunt the misery of her experience at the hands of Madrigal at the Olympic sailing trials, becomes a sailing instructor for disadvantaged children. In doing so she unlocks a family feud which has gone on for generations and conceals  a pure evil of which Madrigal’s nastiness is just a symptom.

Behind all the Strong Winds novels is the inspiration of Arthur Ransome. Many writers, including me, will tell of his influence - how he almost taught us how  to write. But surely his are out-of-date books based solely on sailing and camping? There was no call in what we mistakenly see as his settled, unquestioning world for the moral indignation which is such a feature of Julia Jones's work. After all, the nearest to villains in the Swallows and Amazons series, apart from the incompetent buffoons who steal Captain Flint's precious manuscript, are surely the Hullabaloos in Coot Club and they are only noisy, vulgar and drive their motor launch too carelessly round the Norfolk Broads. Not so. Ransome just once gives vent to  real, deep-felt anger in the way which is reflected so much more all-pervadingly in Strong Winds generally and Black Waters in particular. It's in Great Northern? where Dick Callum, elated at having evidence that the Great Northern Diver really does nest in the British Isles, rows across to tell Mr Jemmerling, the great naturalist, about it. And there he finds that Jemmerling is not what he seems. He is an egg collector. His proposal to prove Dick's discovery to the world is to steal the eggs and have the birds shot before witnesses, stuffed and put on display.

Dick escapes in tears and the novel's central theme, leading to a deliciously satisfactory ending, is thus assured. This to me is one of the great scenes in children's literature. Its power angered me when I was eleven and that indignation is still with me when I reread it now. It dramatises Ransome's revulsion at the deliberate perversion of the moral order Mr Jemmerling presents. A small example perhaps, but Mr Jemmerling in his self-centred greed is himself a corporation in miniature and as symptomatic of the mess we've got the world into as the more far-reaching concerns of Julia Jones in this extraordinary sequence of novels. And it indicates what a worthy successor she is to that wonderful author.

Julia Jones shares and carries on Ransome's wonderful knowledge and experience of sailing, which always leaves me in a state of admiration spiced by a comfortable sort of ignorance. Like Ransome, she is not afraid to put her characters in situations of extreme danger at sea which can be countered only by exceptional expertise. Here, in a climactic scene, we have Xanthe truly alone, and her sailing competence not only proves the point she would have made at the start were it not for Madrigal but contains taut and dramatic writing of a high order. Potential readers who don't know what to expect in this matter can get a taste of it in Julia's short story in Flash in the Pen, the anthology from Authors Electric, now on Kindle as well as in paperback.

Black Waters is available on Kindle and in paperback, published by Golden Duck.

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