A dead man, his grieving daughter, a community activist leader, and a local police woman are at the centre of Emma Ruby-Sachs's ambitious debut novel. Sounds like a murder mystery? Well, it is that and quite a bit more. Set in Soweto, at a time when hopes of township dwellers for a better life are gradually being eroded, Emma Ruby-Sachs builds a colourful portrait of a community that finds itself in opposition to an international corporation; the story delves into the conflicts that the differing interests entail. The bone of contention is the new privately-run water supply system. On top of the other economic hardships faced by the local people, the installation of a new water distribution system will require everybody to buy any water usage above their limited personal allowance. While much more convenient and possibly safer, thanks to taps inside their small houses or compounds, the personal allowance is much too low for the families' needs. As traditionally responsible for the water in the family, the women's action is aimed at delaying the operation of the new system. Organized by the Phiri Community Foundation and led by twenty-six year old Nomsulwa they dig up the distribution pipes! A crisis erupts: the water company's respected water engineer is sent from Canada to Johannesburg to negotiate some sort of deal or compromise. Problem is: his counterparts are the local elders and power brokers, who demand ever more money to "keep their women under control". After only one day of meetings and a boozy night, Peter, known as "The Water Man" to the locals, is found dead, brutally murdered...While the investigation drags on, Claire, his daughter, arrives to find out what happened.
Ruby-Sachs's sympathies are with her South African characters: they are vividly and believably presented. As readers we can visualize them within their local environment, preoccupied by challenges, economical as well as personal. Nomsulwa "feels ancient, part of a thousand generations of women who fought for their community." The author captures her beautifully, caught as she is between community needs and law and order requirements. Her counterpart, Zembe Africa, the local police officer, is similarly torn between, on the one hand, her duty to pursue the pipe thieves and, on top of that, a murder enquiry and, on the other, her sense of belonging to and empathy with the community's problems and Nomsulwa's personal dilemma. For reasons that will be clear pretty early on, she pairs Nomsulwa with Claire: the local woman as the driver and "chaperone" for the "white girl". Can they even communicate? And what could be the outcome?
Ruby-Sachs, a lawyer by training and profession, has set herself a major challenge with her first novel: how to bring an explosive political issue, such as the privatization of water supply to poor communities in Africa, convincingly into a fictional setting and blend its treatment into a novel that engages the reader, beyond its central issues. While the murder mystery provides a useful frame for her novel, its narrative strength lies with the depiction of her South African characters, their environment and the deeper problems they confront. Conscious, no doubt, of not overwhelming the reader with her underlying concerns, the author relies on the interested reader to pick up on the numerous references and allusions in the text to delve deeper into the topics that preoccupy her beyond her fictional writing. [Friederike Knabe]