Originally published as 6 short novels, the almost 800 page long Blackwater follows the Caskeys, a family of mill owners, from the 1920s to the 1970s. The story starts with a flood. Perdido and Blackwater, the two rivers that run through the town Perdido, have covered the whole town in murky water, killing people and destroying properties. Oscar Caskey, who works at his family’s mill, and Bray, his servant, are rowing through town, when they find a woman sitting on a bed on the second floor of the town hotel. She says she’s been sitting there for four days, and that she slept through the evacuation. However, the water level mark on the walls tells a different story. She can’t have been there for four days, as her room must have also been flooded at some point. She can’t tell them much about her family or her past. Despite the mystery that surrounds her, soon she has established herself in town and even marries Oscar.
Blackwater is categorised as Southern Gothic horror. Southern it definitely is, as it takes place in Alabama. The horror, however, comes in short, rare bursts, and it’s not particularly scary. The focus of the book is not on the paranormal, although it is always there under the surface (heh). The focus is on the relationships, plotting and vendettas between family members, and the very real horrors of the things we humans can inflict upon each other. Women are the protagonists of the story, the ones that wield most power. Yet women are also the ones to hurt others and to be hurt themselves, either directly or indirectly. There is a casual, indifferent way in which this is done as well, as if horrific things are not more remarkable than drinking a cup of coffee in the morning.
I already knew that I loved this book after the first 250 pages. The language, the humour, the setting, it all seems effortless in the skilled hands of McDowell. However, as the story developed and more and more characters were introduced, I started getting tired. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t because the book was bad. It was because, in this format, the book was too long. The original format of 6 short novels would have worked better for me. As it was, I started mixing characters up, especially secondary characters that didn’t get much of a story and tended to fade into the background. I also struggled to understand some of the paranormal things that were happening, and the motivation behind them. A big plus was the way a homosexual relationship was presented. A big minus was how black people were portrayed.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes family sagas, especially with a Southern twist – but do read it one novel at a time!