Black River | Tom Harper | 2015, Pb 2016 | Hodder & Stoughton | 338p | Review copy | Buy the book
There is nothing wrong with Kel MacDonald’s life. A hospital consultant, he’s happily married with a supportive wife and a lovely little daughter, living in a fine house in the London suburbs and with plenty of loose change in his pocket. But if you were to ask him, Kel might admit to feeling bored with the ease and comfort of his life, that what he needs is a challenge, a great adventure. When on holiday with his family in Mexico, Kel decides to go off the tourist trail and dive into a deep jungle pool that hides a cave concealing legendary skeletal remains. Kel’s impetuosity almost gets him killed. In the nick of time, he is rescued by Anton, an American treasure hunter, and Drew, a charismatic young woman whom Kel begrudgingly must accept as Anton’s girlfriend.
Anton is a treasure hunter with a plan. He and Drew are about to embark on an expedition deep into the jungle to discover the lost Inca city of Paititi, a city fabled for its gold and secrets. Once Anton learns that Kel is a doctor (the one thing his expedition lacks), Kel stands no chance. Here is the answer to his restlessness, his hunger for excitement, even danger. Nothing will stop Kel from joining the mission. Everything will conspire to ensure he never returns.
Black River is a thoroughly entertaining, old-fashioned adventure. It takes us straight into the heart of the Amazonian jungle as we follow the river, hear its insects and animals, feel them brush or slime against our skin, alert for remote tribes, even more alert for drug smugglers. It’s immediately clear that Kel is completely out of his depth and when he meets his fellow explorers – and what a rum bunch they are – the reader is hard pressed not to feel a sense of dread. This mood is heightened by the narrative which is told to us by Kel himself, often with the benefit of hindsight, filling his story with ominous clues to impending doom. Knowing that another recent expedition has vanished without trace doesn’t help matters.
Kel MacDonald is his own worst enemy and, while one fears for him, he’s not the easiest person to warm to. Disaster and danger strike him before the mission even begins but, far from putting him off, it seems to spur him on. His feelings for Drew certainly have something to do with his enthusiasm, which had the side-effect of me losing much if not all of my sympathy for him. But whether we like Kel (or anyone on the boat heading into the jungle for that matter) is almost irrelevant. This is the story of a flawed man who soon discovers that this is the challenge of his life and he has to scramble to survive. It gets rough, with Kel having to dig deep. We spend almost as much time in his head as we do in the jungle and both give Kel a hard time.
The rest of the characters in the expedition, including Anton, have less colour than Kel, largely because we see them through Kel’s flawed, and often misled, eyes. They have their own stories and secret intentions and rivalries – it’s unlikely anyone is heading into the jungle for noble motives – and these are slowly revealed. Much of the time, though, we are immersed in their fear and confusion as the river darkens, the jungle closes around them and, one by one, their numbers start to fall.
Black River is very well-written, which comes as no surprise at all when one considers the author is Tom Harper. I’m a big fan of Harper’s thrillers and I especially like that each is very different from the one before – he last took us to the Arctic in the ghostly Zodiac Station and before that to ancient Greece in the superb and enormously clever The Orpheus Descent. While I don’t think Black River reaches the heights of its two predecessors – these were both extremely hard to beat – it’s nevertheless a fun and atmospheric read which, for two days, brought the jungle far too close for comfort.