Blackwater: Novel Review

Review by Stacey O’Carroll

Author: Jacqueline Ross

Publisher: AffirmPress

RRP: $32.99

Published: 30 May 2023

“Dear House,

We are a very bad family and don’t deserve you.

Please help us and keep us safe.

I am so sorry.” (Jacqueline Ross)

How much do you know about the past of the person you share your life with? How much do we really know about the history of convict children? Jacqueline Ross’s gothic psychological thriller Blackwater takes the reader into a house with a horrific and tragic past. Alongside the Bronte-esque modern story of Grace travelling with her husband King to his childhood home in remote Tasmania, Ross reveals the disturbing countless child deaths and little-known history of Tasmanian convict nurseries.

Grace is heavily pregnant, and when she arrives at Blackwater with King, she senses something isn’t quite right. Upon King’s father’s death, he inherits the house, along with his strange sister. Spooked by an accident in the house and King’s sister’s odd behaviour towards her unborn baby, Grace refuses to stay in the damp old room at Blackwater. While staying at the local pub, Grace returns to help pack up the house and watches her beloved husband’s personality and behaviour change. Has the house possessed him? When Grace begins to research the horrific convict history of the area and the house, she discovers King and his odd family’s disturbing past.

“King twists the front doorknob and the door swings back and hits the wall with a thud. The smell of rot and rodents rushes out at me.”

From the first page of Blackwater, Ross creates an eerie and suspenseful atmosphere of a remote town on the Tasman Peninsula. Tasmania with all its beautiful landscape, holds some horrific and brutal stories of the past. Ross’s extensive research into convict nurseries and Tasmanian women convict treatment adds a fascinating layer to Blackwater. It is rare to come across a novel that entertains and educates at the same time without feeling stuffy.

Although Blackwater is set in a remote Tasmanian town, Ross perfectly captures the feeling I felt decades ago walking through the buildings of Port Arthur. The echoes of a sad and violent past seem to cry from the sandstone walls. By setting the story in the modern present, the gothic location allows the convict history of the past to creep into the present, creating a layer of ghostly chill. So much so, that I refused to read Blackwater at night.

“A baby will never be born at Blackwater.”  

Ross’s evocative descriptions create such a vivid picture of the decaying house that I found it hard to understand why Grace remained at Blackwater. Grace continues to sleep at the house, even though her unborn baby’s life is in danger. However, the character Ruth is created with such nuance and complexity that the reader feels sorry and scared of her in equal measure.

Although I am not one to reach for a horror or thriller novel, Ross’s Blackwater intrigued me for its nod to Hitchcockian horror films. Blackwater reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, where the house is a character, as well as Wuthering Heights. However, instead of the misty moors of Wuthering Heights, Blackwater has a dark lake, overgrown gardens and crumbling sandstone ruins.

Ross’s atmospheric language is brilliant and draws the reader deeper into the house and its history. Blackwater is a dark and eerie story that is perfect for lovers of gothic thrillers and even readers who, like me, shy away from horror novels.



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