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Ambitious, flawed novel has story at heart

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The Water Man's Daughter

By Emma Ruby-Sachs

McClelland & Stewart, 336 pages, $23

This ambitious and uneven novel about South African apartheid is equal parts mystery, social commentary and political critique.

Although it is a flawed first effort, it is an important book, deserving of praise simply for the story that Toronto author Emma Ruby-Sachs tries to tell.

Ruby-Sachs is a lawyer and human rights activist who became enamoured of South Africa in 1990 when she travelled there as a child with her parents, Toronto-based civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby and Justice of the Superior Court of Canada Harriet Sachs, to meet Nelson Mandela.

Years later Ruby-Sachs returned to South Africa as a university student, surprised to discover that the end of apartheid had not brought about an end to poverty, gang violence and police oppression, and that millions of blacks living in townships were still being denied basic service provisions.

Her first reaction was to write her senior honours thesis on the subject. Her second reaction was to write a novel.

The water man's daughter of the title is 21-year-old Claire Matthews of Toronto, who arrives in contemporary Johannesburg determined to find out more about her father's recent violent murder.

Her father, Peter, was a Canadian water company executive who had been in South Africa on business, trying to resolve an ongoing dispute about water payments and provisions between his company and the local townships.

Unknown to Claire, Nomsulwa, the young woman assigned to escort her while she is in South Africa, is an anti-privatization activist and a key player in the water dispute and in Peter's death. Unknown to Nomsulwa, township chief police officer Zenbe Afrika has handed her this babysitting assignment so that Nomsulwa will stay out of trouble.

All three of these women are struggling with their own interpretations of law and order and right and wrong. While Afrika deliberately stalls police investigations, Nomsulwa takes Claire through neighbouring townships to speak to locals about water availability and about Peter's work in the area.

Frustrated by Claire's naivety, she tries to make her understand why Peter's water allotment plans were unwelcomed and unjust.

"You alone use over a thousand litres a month just flushing the toilet," Nomsulwa berates Claire. "For us, the allotment only ever lasts two weeks. The rest of the time we borrow steal, wait, and hope that the end of the month comes quickly."

In spite of their mutual frustrations, Nomsulwa and Claire form a cautious friendship. But this friendship, like the relationship between Nomsulwa and her cousin and fellow activist Mira, and the relationship between Nomsulwa and her protector Afrika, is not adequately developed.

Similarly, the mystery part of the novel is insufficiently realized. There is little suspense and little desire to find out who and why Peter was killed. Clues discovered along the way seem contrived, and the final explanation -- the why, how and by whom -- lands flat.

Nonetheless, it is apparent that Ruby-Sachs knows, loves and has much to say about South Africa and the injustices she has witnessed there.

She is clearly aware of the stories embedded in the post apartheid nation and in the promise of equal rights and equal treatment. She just needs to find a more compelling way to tell those stories.

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2011 J7

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