Some books just seems to defy all classification. In some cases, this is because they're so wildly original or unusual that it's hard to pin down the kind of category they best represent, in other cases it's because the author manages to pack in so many different elements that to try and slot the book into one category just doesn't do it justice. Take The Waterman's Daughter, for example. Emma Ruby-Sachs' debut novel tells a story about social justice, but includes elements of a police murder investigation, and handles issues of race and gender and queer identity. There is a lot going on.
The novel is set in South Africa, in and around Johannesburg and opens with folk story about water, which immediately sets up the tension: what do they do about water in the townships, and in South Africa in general? During apartheid everyone had free water and free electricity, but now it seems they are being asked to pay for it without being given the means to do so. Watermen are coming into poor communities and installing taps that get turned off when the allotted amount of water is used, but then people can't afford more and trouble ensues. Enter Nomsulwa, a local grassroots activist who is working with the women and families of the township to beat the watermen at their own game. After watching works lay down and bury new pipes in her neighbourhood, Nomsulwa rallies her group and they dig them up during the night and hide them away from the town. But during the dig, they're caught when Zembe, the female chief of police, drives by. She doesn't stop them, but she sees them, which has consequences for Nomsulwa.
One of the watermen who's in town is from Toronto. After the pipes are dug up, he's found murdered in the townships. First of all, he should never have been there – the novel makes no bones about where it is and is not safe to be white and alone, and the townships after dark are not safe. Secondly, he's murdered in such a way as to indicate gang ties, but it's unclear how he could have run afoul of a gang so quickly after arrival. As the investigation is getting underway – with much pressure from the water company – his daughter arrives in town. She's angry and upset and in the way. To get rid of her, Zembe assigns Nomsulwa to look after her; when Nomsulwa says no, Zembe holds the pipe theft over her head, forcing her into it.
It's a plot device that works well, because as Nomsulwa takes Claire around and shows her how things work in South Africa, we get a good look at the justice system and the reality of the water problem. Ruby-Sachs did her thesis on water security in South Africa, so she knows what she's talking about and presents the issues in scenes and discussion between the characters. The novel moves between the perspectives of Nomsulwa and Zembe, so we get alternating views of the issues as well, which rounds out the story. It also helps that Nomsulwa and Zembe are two very different women, and so experience their country and its reality differently. Nomsulwa is gay, which is not an easy identity in many places, but especially developing countries. On the other hand, Zembe is the lone woman in the 10-person Phiri police force, and its chief, and in her dealings with the male higher-ups in the city suggest she faces more obstacles than a man in her position would. But these issues are largely secondary to the problem of water.
The Waterman's Daughter is, in a way, a call to action, but Ruby-Sachs resists easy answers or "if only they would listen to the people" solutions. Yes, she seems to say, the people should be a major part of the solution, but that doesn't mean there isn't still a need for help. Money, for example, is something that isn't lying around. The story of Nomsulwa and Claire's uneasy friendship is a pretty nice metaphor for this. Although they aren't setting out to achieve anything specific, they do manage to develop a kind of mutual respect and understanding, one that seems to be missing from the boardroom of the big multi-national companies. But for all its social justice sensibilities, this is a novel first and foremost, and its plot ticks along at a quick pace as you get pulled into the story of these women, and the everyday realities that shape their lives.
The Waterman's Daughter
by Emma Ruby Sachs
First published 2011 (cover image shown from McClelland & Stewart edition)