On the surface, Lena Skosana and Joanne Carey are living worlds apart. Lena, a black South African woman of the Bantu tribe, has survived the hell of merciless discrimination and unforgivable sexual violence. Joanne, a white South African journalist, has always sympathized with the plight of black South Africans but has been sheltered from the direct brutality of such atrocities via the safety nets of class privilege and white privilege. Miraculously the women find commonalities in the midst of their differences and join forces in order to fight for justice and social reform.
HOW THE WATER FALLS opens in the year 1997: although apartheid was officially dismantled in 1991, the country is still sifting through the wreckage of structural and psychological racism. Lena has decided to come forward and take Police Commissioner Colonel Hans Borghost to trial for his compliance in her rape while under police interrogation. Years earlier, twenty-eight year old Joanna met twenty-six year old Lena. Having been arrested multiple times for her dedication to activism, Lena hopes that Joanne will expose the sickening evils of the police force to the media. Additionally, Lena needs help securing an overseas adoption for her soon-to-be-born daughter. Joanne agrees, thus forever linking her fate to Lena.
Taking down the police department proves to be a long, uphill battle with multiple setbacks. Joanne finds herself falling in love with the enemy: Jared Borghost, a Dutch ex-soldier and a brother of Colonel Borghost. Having been dishonorably discharged, Jared is haunted by guilt and anger, seeking comfort in the bottom of a bottle in order to thwart his emotional disturbances. Joanne’s hesitation melts into compassion as she attempts to change a monster back into a man. Lena fights for the preservation of her humanity, seeking the community of the church. She finds reassurance of faith, no matter how flimsy, in selflessness that often results in a campaign of fear and intimidation by the authorities.
Kollenborn’s sprawling novel attempts to filter large, convoluted chunks of history into a tidy and streamlined narrative that champions the power of redemption. The energy and the forward momentum of the narrative suffers from the uneven juggling of parallel lives. A few minor characters get lost in the shuffle, especially key figures involved in the various resistance groups. Jared and Joanne’s romance cannot escape cliche. Joanne and Jared are complete opposites and thus, their Jane-Austen-modeled but Stephenie-Meyer-executed courtship is predictably filled with miscommunication and angst. The foreshadowing of the inevitable relationship can be easily pinpointed by cryptic lines such as, “…Someone like Jared cahn neva be your friend, and consequently, cahn neva be trusted.”
Physical attraction serves as the flimsy foundation for the relationship. Jared is initially painted as a loose cannon designed for annihilation; he is a drunkard and a racist, inherently controlled by vicious mood swings. He quickly falls in love with Joanne despite her admitted reservations. She falls for him when she witnesses a display of Jared’s physical strength, which he more or less admits is a reflexive response gained from his years as a soldier. His flaws, such as aiding the mass murder of women and children, so grossly overshadow his positive qualities that the romance reads as forced, a distraction rather than a plot device. On the other hand, Lena’s romance with a younger man is tacked on towards the end; his characterization mostly relies on his submission to Lena. Thus, the high stakes associated with preserving each woman’s humanity is far more interesting than the romance aspects.
HOW THE WATER FALLS is a sweeping display of triumph over tragedy, no matter how small the victory or arduous the journey.
Reviewed by Vanessa Willoughby for IndieReader.