Book Review: Black River by Louise Walsh

Black River - bookBlack River is a fictional novel based on a true event: the Aberfan disaster of 1966, when a coal tip collapsed, engulfing the village school and killing 116 children and 28 adults. It begins with a description of the ghostly scene which greets the eyes of Harry Roberts, a local journalist, as he arrives in Aberfan moments after the slip. He is stunned and shaken by what he sees. Unable to focus on journalistic objectivity and overwhelmed by the tenacity of Fleet Street reporters getting in the way in their attempt to find the most sensational story, Harry gives up, returning home with nothing to report.   

The narrative continues a year later, in the lead up to the anniversary of the disaster. Harry regrets his failure to cover the tragic event and is keen to protect the residents of Aberfan from more press intrusion, desperate to make up for his failure to report the disaster.

At the launch of Black River Louise Walsh explained how she came to write the novel, inspired partly by the Leveson enquiry. She spoke about interviewing some of the Aberfan residents, and how relieved she was that they were happy to speak to her about the press coverage of the tragedy. She also spent time reading through old newspaper articles, uncovering the evidence piece by piece. There is some very atmospheric writing and, as a Cardiff resident, it’s fascinating to observe the descriptions of a city which has changed so much but which, in many ways, is still the same.

After the initial shock of the opening scene, it took me a while to get into this book, partly because the 1960s is a period I’m not that familiar with, being too long ago for me to remember but too recent for me to have studied it at school. It took a bit of time to get my head around the politics of the period, with the Welsh Office and the National Coal Board in existence, a far different political situation to that of 2016.

It was interesting to hear Walsh describing her writing technique at the launch. She explained that, after writing a quick first draft, she extracts all of the dialogue and turns it into a script, so that it can be properly examined and improved, before returning it to its original form. The book launch included a dramatic reading by two local actors – Mark Lewis Jones and Ross Leyshon, which really brought the story to life. In fact, I am sure the novel would work equally well as a film.

Black River is not just a novel about the Aberfan disaster. It goes much deeper, highlighting issues of corruption, patriotism, journalistic ethics and political bartering, showing Wales to be a far more complex place than it is sometimes viewed. The Welsh Office was obsessed with portraying the best possible image of their nation, as well as having concerns for the protection of the Aberfan residents. The story of the Black River (the Taff), a river polluted to within an inch of its life, acts as a kind of metaphorical beacon of disaster as it flows inexorably towards Cardiff and the Bristol Channel, carrying the run off from coal tips and the refuse from factories.

The novel seems to strike a balance between the genres of historical fiction and investigative journalism. Much of the content is based on truth, and it makes for a fascinating read in the lead up to what will be the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster (21st October 2016) when, of course, there will be yet more press coverage.

Visit the Black River website to read more about the author’s research, the cover design (which reminds me slightly of Picasso’s Guernica) and the truth about the Aberfan disaster.

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Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher

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