The Water Thief by Claire Hajaj

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The Water Thief by Claire Hajaj

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A deceptively simple story addressing many of the problems facing western African nations…drought, corruption, politics, questionable charitable interventions…and wraps it all in a very human story of love and loss.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: July 2018
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
ISBN: 978-1786073945

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Nick is in the middle of wedding preparations when he decides to leave his fiancée behind in London and take up a post in some un-named west African country providing engineering support for the building of a children's hospital. He has no idea what he is getting himself into.

Perhaps also, he has no idea what he is trying to get himself out of. He had asked Kate to marry him on the day of his father's funeral, so maybe it wasn't the most thought-through of life decisions. As the story progresses, we're asked time and time again to consider whether such decisions should indeed be thought-through, or whether we should follow our hearts. She provides no answers. The character back-stories as they emerge seem to suggest that whichever approach we take, will still leave us victim to the many forces beyond our control.

As a story The Water Thief is very simple. A man comes from England to help out on a charity project. He finds corruption and politics and lies and death. He also finds drought and more death. He finds children suffering. And their parents also. He also finds children learning to make their own way in this hard harsh world, a way that their parents would not prefer.

Finding that the project he is paid to be working on is, let's say, not exactly clean, and discovering a more direct way in which he can use his skills to help the villagers he has been billeted with, he hatches a plan. He tries to 'take it through channels' but when that meets political resistance decides to go ahead anyway.

One slight problem is that he doesn't actually have the money to do this. Well, he does, but it is tied up in England, and Kate…Kate is not as supportive of his African adventure as he might have hoped.

Meanwhile, as if life wasn't complicated enough, he falls in love with the wife of his host…and because Hajaj seems to want to throw every possible spice into this recipe, the wife is a Christian who converted to Islam when she married. Nick is a (lapsed?) Jew.

It's almost as though Hajaj picked west Africa, asked 'what are its problems?' and decided to throw them all into one story. The surprising thing is that it works.

The drought is the life's hard and fires will flare and water is being manipulated for economic and political ends kind of drought…not the Michael Buerk on global news give us your money kind. It's the every day blight – that with very little money and not much more political will can actually be solved - the point is well made.

The religious backgrounds are under-played to the point of wondering if they're relevant at all – but of course they are. Religion is just another kind of allegiance… and it is one we're all willing to desert for other, older, forms of belief when the life of a child is at stake.

Voices switch between a third person narrative focussing on Nick's experiences and a first person child's eye view from Jojo (also called Yahya) the adolescent son of the host household. What strikes you most about Jojo's voice and his experiences is how easily they might translate to a western setting…a child becoming a man…looking for direction…being encouraged in one way, then led astray, and how one chance moment results in the choosing of a path.

The story plays out in flames and bullets, but comes to rest ultimately in an English country garden. I'm not sure how I felt about the ending. On the one hand it wrung more emotion from me than the rest of the tale, but on the other, it did seem a little too neat. I might have preferred it to end where the prologue has it starting, with a plane taking off and a child with no forgiveness in his heart.

If I take one thing away from this book, it is that we should all question our motives, and wonder if we are imposing our intent where it is neither wanted nor needed. Should we, in other words, let people work out their own problems in their own way. Is there something overly moralistic in our need to intervene, when we don't fully understand the context we're dealing with.

A simple story, subtly woven with complex ideas.

For positive takes on the African experience we are still recommending Twenty Chickens for a Saddle by Robyn Scott or for the darker truths try Heart of Darfur by Lisa French Blaker.

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