Cormac O’Keeffe’s debut novel, Black Water, tells the story of football-mad Jig Hunt, a ten-year-old teetering on the edge of Dublin gangland.
With an alcoholic mother and abusive father, Jig searches for role-models as he enters the adult world. He must choose between Shay, his well-meaning football coach who is trying to get him out of Dublin’s dark underbelly, and Ghost, a local gang leader who is trying to drag him further in.
The novel revolves around paradoxes, internal conflicts and difficult decisions. Jig’s character exemplifies the moral dilemma of who to save and who is beyond saving. His horrible family, although victims of circumstance, are beyond saving; but what about Jig? This is the debate underpinning the whole book, inspiring empathy and suspense.
O’Keeffe’s characterisation is one of the book’s strongest features. By giving various characters, both main and side, the opportunity to narrate he provides complex layers of motive, dark pasts, and desires – an impressive feat for fiction writing.
Through his narration he humanises characters often left under-developed by writers and media in real life, including the authorities. O’Keeffe presents the personal and paradoxical dynamics within the police force: goodwill and selflessness combined with instances of arrogance and corruption.
This layer of realism permeating the novel is down to O’Keeffe’s career as a journalist reporting on Dublin communities affected by gang violence, distinguishing it from the average detective novel. Indeed, many writers give in to the temptation of exaggeration, spicing up a grim tale with a touch of Hollywood. This dramatisation often creates an unrealistic separation between the events and the setting of the novel. In Black Water, Dublin does not just provide the backdrop for the novel but integrates it into the plot, affecting the character’s actions and moods. His style of writing also reflects his experience in journalism, and for the better too.
Whilst there are sections of the book that are not easy to read and the circumstances are continuously grim, the novel is nuanced and continues to strike multiple notes throughout the book. In the midst of the gritty events, there are beautiful descriptive passages and examples of humanity, tenderness and normality. This dynamic, the possibility of hope and improvement, is what draws the reader in and maintains their interest.
O’Keeffe sets out to immerse the reader in his perception of the topic, seizing the opportunity to inject his own feelings and perspectives onto the story. Furthermore, he utilises the character driven momentum to reflect the painful reality of the current times in which drugs trade and gang violence is escalating. The novel has an immediacy to it that is as impressive as it is enticing.
Punchy and action-filled, O’Keeffe’s writing and characters keep the reader hooked right up to the explosive ending.
Black Water by Cormac O’Keeffe
Black & White Publishing (2018)
Image: Black & White Publishing