Dark, eerie and unsettling, Jacqueline Ross’ debut novel Blackwater taps into the horror of Tasmania’s colonial past. Blackwater explores the legacy of so-called ‘female factories’ – the workhouses to which female convicts were sent during the early 19th century – putting a contemporary spin on this uncomfortable chapter in Australia’s history.
The novel follows Grace – young, newly married and heavily pregnant – who finds herself stranded in her much older husband King’s crumbling and isolated childhood home. King insists they will only spend a day or two with his estranged, terminally ill father. However, when the father dies during their visit, King feels compelled to linger. Claiming he needs to support his eccentric twin sister and help clear out the family home, King keeps extending his and Grace’s stay. The more she learns about the dark history of the house – and the family – the uneasier Grace becomes. With her baby due to arrive any day and her husband’s behaviour becoming increasingly erratic, Grace decides she needs to take matters into her own hands.
Blackwater‘s Gothic themes are a strong focus throughout the novel. Ross effectively evokes the horror of the family home with her unsettlingly detailed imagery: the rotting wooden staircase that splinters under Grace’s weight, the mould growing on the bedroom walls and the disgusting state of the kitchen.
The writer’s fascination with haunted houses and Tasmania’s bleak past is evident – the historical links to the brutal reality of female convicts imprisoned in the former Van Diemen’s Land add an intriguing Australian twist to the Gothic tradition.
While the Gothic atmosphere is the novel’s greatest success, however, unfortunately the plot and characters sometimes fall flat. King, in particular, is a confusing character – even before he falls prey to the house’s disturbing influence, he refuses to take Grace’s concerns seriously. Despite his alternately cold and smothering behaviour, Grace still frustratingly regards him as a loving partner worth fighting for.
While Grace is an interesting and determined protagonist, several other female characters seem somewhat one-dimensional. They crop up occasionally to pass on key information to Grace before melting into the background until their knowledge is next required. More insight into King’s twin, Ruth, would have been welcome too. While Ruth’s odd and, at times, threatening behaviour is key to the novel’s creeping sense of dread, it does occasionally seem almost beyond belief that Grace would stay in such conditions.
Blackwater is, for the most part, relatively slow-paced. While tension gradually builds, interspersed with moments of intense creepiness, it doesn’t quite get to page-turner levels of action and suspense until the book’s final quarter. However, Blackwater‘s atmospheric setting, ties to actual Australian history and Gothic style make the book an interesting read for horror fans who enjoy a slow build.
Blackwater by Jacqueline Ross
Publisher: Affirm Press
Publication date: 30 May 2023