Black River by Louise Walsh
This is a book set against the backdrop of the Aberfan disaster in Wales, UK in which 40 people, 116 of them young children lost their lives when a huge waste coal heap slid onto their school and their homes. I started reading this on the 50th anniversary of the disaster. As a former journalist and someone who lived close to Aberfan this was an event of personal interest.
The main character, Harry, is a local journalist who has to go to the scene and file reports. He is physically, mentally and emotionally affected by what he sees. He is aghast at the behaviour of journalists sent from the national newspapers in Fleet Street who seem oblivious to human suffering and just want to get their story.
Walsh partly bases the story on some documents which indicated that press intrusion was so bad that the government division in Wales was deeply concerned and wanted some action. Around it she tries to present a portrait of a journalist of the old fashioned kind and his reactions.
As deeply moving at this tragic event was in reality, Walsh singularly fails to make this a novel I could was able to finish. The narration is clunky, full of phrases that seem lifted from official reports rather than rendered in language that the characters would use in reality. Harry’s life as a reporter is unconvincing – I note from the acknowledgements that she had connections with several journalists from South Wales, one or two of whom would indeed have remembered Aberfan but I have grave doubts that they saw the book pre-publication. If they did they would have spotted a huge error in the opening page where, according to Walsh, London based journalists got to the site around the same time as Harry. They didn’t (the distance from London to this part of Wales would have taken them several hours while Harry was much closer so its unrealistic). Further fundamental errors are apparent – he misses his deadline to file one of the biggest stories at that time yet is never even reprimanded despite the fact that missing a deadline is a cardinal mistake for any journalist. And then, instead of focusing all his effort on this story over coming months, he goes chasing a much more inferior story about city officials banning a film of Ulysses.
i should have listed to my inner voice before buying this, the voice which says that authors who have never be a journalist rarely get it right in their portrayal of members of this profession. I could have struggled through if the writing had sparkled but it didn’t. In fact it was dreary, the kind of strained language that you often find coming out of introductory creative writing classes.
After three sessions reading this novel I decided it wasn’t worth any more investment of my time.
15 thoughts on “Black River by Louise Walsh”
Thank you for the review of my novel, Black River.
I felt it important to clear up a couple of misunderstandings for the sake of my editor, publisher and myself.
Nowhere did I mention specifically what time Harry himself gets to Aberfan. We don’t know what time he is told about the tip slide. We don’t know what time he gets there. It is deliberately vague. We first realise Harry is not quite right because he loses his sense of time.
The trouble Harry gets into for not reporting on Aberfan is alluded to later in the book which you may be unaware of due to the fact that you didn’t finish it.
I can only apologise that you found the writing dreary and I will certainly endeavour to make my next novel ‘sparkle’.
I would like to address the your comment about my motivation for writing this book in the comment section. Black River took me four years to write. I started it in 2012, well before the 50th anniversary of Aberfan was on my radar. It’s been a labour of love. You point out that it’s published by a small Welsh publisher, so it shouldn’t surprise you to know that I am unlikely to make much money, if any.
I may not be your favourite type of literary Booker Prize winning writer, but I am a writer and I will continue to write.
Contrary to your assertions, I have had very positive feedback from the journalists who I consulted while researching the novel.
I would be grateful if, next time you hear that ‘inner voice,’ you consider listening to it. That negative emotional reaction to the book before you had even read it may be significant. That negative emotional reaction was not put there by me. I can’t help but wonder whether you are bringing your own personal baggage to the table.
I am sorry you felt I was unduly harsh in my review Louise. I can assure you that I didn’t buy your novel or begin reading it with any agenda in mind other than to read something that would give a new perspective on this horrible event. I had no emotional baggage with me whatsoever – if I had I wouldn’t even have bought the novel. What I did was to give what I believed to be an honest response.
Almost every time I’ve not trusted that inner voice I’ve regretted it later. There’s a Huxley which is an exception, but I remember it precisely because it was so rare an exception.
It sounds an odd subject to make a novel of to be honest, plus the errors do seem odd. Even now the nationals would get there after the locals (if there are any locals left), back then it seems self-evident even without a background in the profession that they wouldn’t make it at much the same time. The other errors also seem problematic and a bit obvious.
Oh well. Sometimes that’s the way it goes. At least generally you have a good hit rate.
I suspect – but could be doing the author a disservice – that she knew the anniversary was coming up and it would get significant attention so that would be a good time to write a book on the topic. i wouldn’t want to suggest this was entirely an money-making endeavour – that would be unfair – but I do think the subject warranted more investment of time, particularly in fact checking.
What a shame. You really want something like this to be good and even somehow revelatory.
Very honest review – sounds like the book fails on many levels, which is a shame when it’s covering such an emotive event which warrants proper writing. I shall be avoiding….
I suspect the publishers ( a small Welsh press) saw the subject matter, knew the 50th anniversary was coming up, and thought they would seize the opportunity. Questionable judgement applied to the quality of the book however
Oh dear this novel does sound disappointing. The premis is specifically good, yet the inaccuracies you mention suggests the author has missed a great opportunity. What a shame.
Having not been a journalist, I would have missed the misrepresentation, and I’m glad you’ve warned me off the book.
Oh, that’s disappointing. And you’re right: so few novelists seem to be able to depict journalists in an authentic manner. My pet hate is news stories included in novels that don’t follow the normal conventions of a news story.
ugh yes that’s annoying. It was very noticeable in Fishing Salmon in the Yemen for example
Well sometimes you just have to abandon a novel. Funny isn’t it about that inner voice. It is so rarely WRONG when it comes to books.
Im getting more willing to abandon books Guy – hardly ever did that in the past but now realising there are better options for using my time
Thank you for your honest appraisal of this book. When you first mentioned it, I was keen to read it, but the strained language bothers me more than the inaccuracies which I would be less likely to spot.
Im sure there is a book that will do justice to this topic. Just not this one