Water Music by Margie Orford
|Water Music by Margie Orford|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: An abandoned child found barely alive and a missing teenager are only some of Dr Clare Hart's problems as the South African child protection officer seeks to come to terms with her own problems and a hierarchy intent on wiping out the Section she works for. Gritty crime drama rooted in the social problems of modern Cape Town.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 332||Date: February 2014|
|Publisher: Head Zeus|
|External links: Author's website|
Cassie is out riding on a bridle path hardly used in the height of summer, totally deserted in winter. Her horse takes a tumble, and she goes with it, and stumbles into a tiny, plastic-wrapped child, maybe three-years old, and painfully thin, foot-soles like marble and skin blue with cold.
Cassie might be no more than a child herself, but she's got her wits about her. She finds her phone and makes the call.
Then she wraps her body warmth around the child. Quite possibly as much care as this waif had seen so far in her short life.
Dr Clare Hart works for Section 28 - not named as some detractors would have it after a famous prison gang, but after the clause in the South African constitution which guarantees the rights of the child: the right to a name and nationality, the right to care, to a basic standard of living, to be protected from maltreatment and a host of other things that only become important or even rational if those few basics are taken care of. Section 28 is the South African equivalent of what we in the UK would know as the Child Protection Unit.
Except we in the UK would expect it to work, to have its work valued and protected by the police force within which it operates and to be respected for that work by society at large.
If Orford's telling is anything to go by, maybe South Africa still has progress to be made on all of these fronts.
I'm not a snob when it comes to books. I'm not above reading thrillers that purport to be no more than that. The best-written of them, even when they don't set out to do so, seem to filter through new knowledge, aspects of place and people, but even when they don't, they're of value in their own right. Entertainment is, in my view, allowed to be just that: entertaining. It doesn't have to be illuminating or worthy or have some kind of message.
But I guess if you're writing about somewhere that is as new a nation and as struggling a nation as South Africa, then any novel that truly reflects the place as it is, is going to be full of social and political comment.
Life is political.
Whether that is what Orford set out to do, or whether she does so accidentally by virtue of just telling it like it (most probably) is, I don't know. And it doesn't matter.
The book succeeds on both fronts.
If you're not interested in South Africa – there's still a gripping tale to take you on the roller-coaster ride of a forensic specialist's attempts to find the mother of a child found abandoned and tethered in the woods barely alive. These attempts are complicated when a grandfather turns up to the press conference begging help in the search for his missing grand-daughter, a talented cellist, at 19 years of age technically too old to fall within the remit of Section 28. But Clare Hart's not above bending the rules, now and then.
All the usual genre requirements are met: the complicated love-life (Hart's lover is an undercover cop, never around when you need him – unless, maybe, you REALLY DO need him), an unwanted pregnancy, aging / dying parents, inter-departmental squabbles, solid loyalties of the kind that will ignore all career-threatening orders from above. There are the wayward teenagers who may or may not be caught up in the gang thing, the drugs thing.
Trails twist and turn and go cold and heat up… and eventually our heroine is going to find herself down the proverbial mine…
If you are interested in South Africa you might pay a bit more notice to the corruption that's making Hart's job harder. You might wonder about the casual misogyny that's far worse, far more physical, than we'd expect anyone to be allowed to get away with on our home turf. You might think a bit harder about the harsh divides between the estates, the castle, and the townships, and the basic underlying fear that seems to pervade everyone's life, no matter what their social strata.
I've no way of knowing how accurate a portrayal Orford gives us, but she lives in Cape Town, so maybe she should know.
What I can say with certainty is that the voice is succinctly South African. Only occasional lapses into Afrikaans to give a touch of authenticity, without being enough to annoy those of us who struggle if we can't accurately translate what we're given, for the most part, that voice relies on a particularly clipped way of speaking, that flows over from the dialogue into the style of the whole exposition.
I do have a criticism in that a lot of the characters weren't distinct enough for me to remember who was who, which is a shame because it's the only weakness it what would otherwise be a brilliant production. As it is, the plot carries the weight effortlessly driving forward, and the social comments adds flavour.
Short of perfection, but a gut-wrenching read all the same.
It's traditional to point interested readers at something else they might like, but to be honest this is the first thing I've read that treats crime in South Africa (or Africa at large) the same way writers treat it in say, the UK or the US, without any lightening of humour or justification of history, but as a pure and simple tale of nasty people doing horrible things.
You can read more book reviews or buy Water Music by Margie Orford at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Water Music by Margie Orford at Amazon.com.
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