Title: For the Mercy of Water
Author: Karen Jayes
Publisher: Penguin SA
Water, humanity’s most vital life force, is fast becoming one of the world’s most imperilled natural commodities. Many of the conflicts currently raging across the globe are driven by water shortages, and it is imperative that the immutable connection between poverty, war, climate change and the scarcity of natural resources such as food and water be recognised. As climate change, poor water management, pollution and rampant population growth continue to threaten water security around the world, the future is looking rather grim and thirsty for the human race. The United Nations estimates that by 2025 approximately 1,8 billion people could be living in areas crippled by “absolute water scarcity”, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions. Cape Town-based author and journalism lecturer Karen Jayes’s debut novel, For the Mercy of Water, takes as its premise the very real and imminent threat of a global water crisis, and the political, humanitarian and ecological ramifications of such a catastrophe.
Set in the near future, in an unnamed country caught in the grips of a devastating drought and a resultant war over dwindling water resources, For the Mercy of Water (which was awarded the 2013 Sunday Times Fiction Prize) explores challenging issues such as sexual assault and rape, the privatisation of natural resources, war, and the abstract concepts of mercy and justice with great sensitivity and poetic flair.
In Jayes’s fictional landscape the contested water supply is secured and safeguarded by a ruthless water corporation known only as “the company”. Rural areas are mostly abandoned as thirst and desperation drive people to the cities and the young men of the villages are forced to join the very company that is systematically sapping the lifeblood from their own communities. Those that remain are very young girls, watched over by the “grandmothers”, resourceful older women who have become adept at diverting water supplies from the company’s pipes.
When a remote village experiences unexpected rainfall, a group of company guards sets out to secure this new water source. Here they find an old woman, known only as “Mother”, and a group of young girls. In the aftermath of the encounter between the village’s female inhabitants and the company men a journalist, a doctor and two aid workers arrive in the long-forgotten town. Finally, a young female writer is drawn to the village by internet reports of Mother’s story.
Forging a friendship of sorts, the journalist and the writer (they are never named) must make sense of Mother’s fragmented accounts of the horrors that played out in the village classroom. There is no sign of the girls, and some believe that they are nothing more than a figment of Mother’s imagination, ghosts conjured by a deeply traumatised psyche.
Inspired by Jayes’s experience as a newspaper journalist covering events in the Middle East, For the Mercy of Water is concerned with the ways in which control over access to water can be used as a political tool. Through its discussion water politics, the novel deconstructs the rhetoric of domination and its role in gender-based violence. To control water supply, Jayes suggests, is to control the very essence of life, the bodies of those that fall victim to such systematic starvation.
Mother muses, “It is hard to explain what I am thinking, but I am thinking that the human body, it is mostly water. And I am seeing … that we are busy down here fighting a war over our bodies. We are fighting a war over every piece of life in all of us” (p 110).
For the Mercy of Water draws on enmeshed metaphorical relationships between the categories of female, the body and nature on the one hand, and the categories of male, the mind and culture on the other. In this sense, the war waged over water (nature) is also a war waged over the female body.
The novel offers an unflinching representation of women’s lived bodily experiences: the brutality of rape, the pain of having to stitch together the broken body of a girl child, the pleasure of feeling the soft cotton of a brand new dress against one’s skin.
Literary Trauma Theory suggests that testimony draws us into an ethical relationship with the survivor. This is certainly true for Jayes’s unnamed writer, whose fate becomes increasingly entangled with the plight of Mother and her lost girls.
Mother’s halting account of the brutal assaults on the bodies of the girls in her care can be seen as a performance or iteration of the trauma that she cannot directly relate, but it is also a strategic manoeuvre to ensure (spoiler alert!) the safety of the last remaining girl, Eve. Like Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights, Mother is painstakingly eking out her story, staving off the return of the company men. Through Mother’s narrative, the girls are given voices and distinct identities. Among a cast of nameless characters identified only by their professions, Annette, Eve, Noni, and Isalida alone have been granted the power of names.
Although For the Mercy of Water operates strictly within an allegorical space, it is difficult not to find traces of South Africa in Jayes’s unidentified cityscape. On these streets, hawkers sell their wares out of large hessian bags, a taxi driver steers his vehicle with a spanner “clamped to the axle in the middle” of the space where his steering wheel should be, and companies are named after “old revolutionary leaders”.
This powerful novel is an important addition to the South African literary oeuvre. Despite its difficult subject matter, Jayes’s hauntingly beautiful, almost hypnotic prose leaves the reader feeling uplifted, assured that redemption and mercy are possible in even the most hopeless of circumstances.
International Decade for Action: Water for Life 2005-2015, http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/scarcity.shtml. Accessed 26 October 2013.