In Water Must Fall, Nick Wood’s follow up to the widely acclaimed Azanian Bridges, the year is 2048, tour world has been ravaged by global warming, and water has become so scarce it is now the “most precious commodity on Earth.” The big water companies have monopolised on people’s thirst. All sources must be accounted for and taxed, down to the smallest spring.
For the most part, the story is told from the point of view of three characters: Arthur Green, a man haunted by memories of Hurricane Katrina, who is tasked with rooting out corruption in FreeFlow, one of the big water companies; Graham Mason, a worker at one of the aforementioned companies, on the search for a new source of water, while simultaneously trying to save his marriage; and Lizzette Mason, the unhappy wife of Graham, who yearns for more and sets out to find it.
This is a frustrating book; the story traverses the globe but never really goes anywhere. Wood seems to want to cram as many ideas as he can into the book’s 280 pages, with corruption, rape, murder, ecological doom, and religious undertones vying for space in this near-future dystopia. Yet the most interesting parts of the book are the threads that concentrate on the relationships between the characters. Wood appears to want to write a book that tackles racism, politics, global warming—or global boiling, as it’s referred to here—and family drama in one book, a huge task for any author and one that could perhaps be accomplished in a longer story. In this one, however, it seems like the threads that follow the families and relationships come from one book while the rest belong in another. When Graham and Lizzette’s marriage starts breaking down irreparably and she falls for Busisiwe Mhlongo, a rep for FreeFlow, the resulting relationship is more engrossing than any of the drama that goes on around it. For example, when Busisiwe later kills a man and is subsequently tagged, there is little consequence or apparent peril beyond losing her job, which she doesn’t care for anyway. Even with her tag, she is allowed to travel out of the country with Lizzette with so little resistance that the death seems altogether unnecessary. The man she kills is set up to be a bad guy, and one that could have been a main player,given room to breathe, but, beyond Lizzette’s reaction, there’s no real drama when he dies.
There’s another death in this book that seems not only unnecessary but also more than a little bit problematic. Throughout the book, Wood tries to comment on people’s ever evolving understanding of sexuality and gender, from the fact that Lizzette is bisexual, Busisiwe and another character—Pedro—are trans, to the character of Zeke who is non-binary. Here, I’m afraid, lies the problem.
At first, when Zeke appeared, I was pleasantly surprised by the casual introduction of:
“Well, what do you say?” Zeke asked, waiting by my desk, but having a slurp of their own Latte Affectionato. (p. 21)
Nice, I thought, we’re having a character who is non-binary without it being spelt out for us. Then the next sentence happened.
They’re a Gender X Neut, wearing leather suspenders from grey coolant pants over a white cotton shirt, made with plenty of room to continue hiding their sex. (p. 21)
I understand that not everybody reading this book will be au fait with all the correct terms (I admit I am not fully educated on all of them, and in trying to write this review I found many I had not come across before), but if such terms are to become accepted by everyone, they need to be used like any traditional gendering term. Calling attention to it in a book like this makes this novel part of the problem.
But that’s not even the main problem. The real problem I have is this: Zeke dies. There’s nothing wrong in that, you might think: a character is a character, and if someone is going to die, it shouldn’t matter who they are. But it does. In the same way that fridging is problematic, in the same way that black characters in slasher films from the 1980s, ’90s and even 2000s were the first (or near as dammit) to be offed. If you want to bring in a character that is not only non-binary but also someone that one of your main characters has feelings for, don’t have that character raped and killed. Not only is it a bad look that you’ve killed off a minority character—minority in terms of real life as well as representation in the arts—you’ve unnecessarily raped them. Fiction shouldn’t treat minority groups as cannon fodder for the story. What’s even more frustrating is, there is an easy fix to this problem. If, as a writer, Wood is keen to represent this minority group in his work, he should make one of the other characters non-binary. Make Arthur himself non-binary. You don’t even have to change his name—shorten it to Art, change all the pronouns to they/them, and Bob’s your mother’s gender-neutral sibling.
And rape. Is rape a necessary plot point? Surely murder alone is enough to set out the villain’s stall. Adding rape to the story is like when Stephen King insists on making an already psychopathic villain a racist, then throws out a load of N-words to drive the point home.
The characters in this book are far stronger than the thriller element. I don’t know if Wood did this intentionally, but I suspect not. As a result, I care about Graham as he fights to save his marriage, I care about Lizzette as she fights to start a new life with Busisiwe, and I care about Arthur and his family. I care about poor old Zeke, even though their appearances are few and fleeting. I don’t care, however, about the fight for the water. I don’t even care enough when some ancillary characters are fighting to reclaim their land. I care about the characters themselves, but not their actions. Everything becomes background noise to the relationships and with such important subjects being covered, that is not a good thing.
Throughout the book, there are references to historical and relatively recent events such as Hurricane Katrina, Charlottesville, and even 45th’s wall. Despite Wood’s best efforts, these just seem to be dropped in to be relevant, and he doesn’t appear to have anything to say about them. It doesn’t underline any point he wishes to make except that he knows about events that have happened. And referencing Trump’s wall might as well be a nod and a wink to the camera, saying “you know, because it’s a stupid idea.” I find it all the more frustrating because Wood is a great writer when he wants to be, or I wouldn’t care about the characters so much.
In many ways, this book could easily have been set in an alternative modern day, as Azanian Bridges was. It isn’t hard to imagine that if the human race hadn’t started recycling and using renewable energy when they did that our situation wouldn’t be too dissimilar to the one outlined in the book. I also found the political and corruption angle to be dull and unsatisfying when, especially considering the subjects of global warming, race, etc., and the fact that it’s meant to be affecting the characters' lives so much, it needs to be a driving force, the momentum to move the characters. All that happens, however, is they plod from place to place doing … stuff. With very little danger going on around them
Then there’s the language. It doesn’t seem to have evolved. In the last ten or twenty years, the way we talk about each other, the terms we use, have changed dramatically. Even the slurs have changed. So, let’s say Wood is right, and the fights to stamp out racism or attitudes about gender are ongoing in nearly thirty years’ time (sadly very possible), are we to believe that in all that time, for example, “taking the knee” will still be a thing? Surely, if the fight still rages, there will be a new symbol for people to use. As for the attitudes of people towards people of neutral or fluid gender, or fluid sexuality, the characters of this story are in their late thirties, meaning they would be kids today. It is hard to believe that anybody born now would be completely surprised in twenty-eight years about somebody being part of the LGBTQ+ community. Maybe they will, and maybe I’m being naive about the possibility of the human race’s overarching attitudes evolving, but it’s just another factor that makes the book’s future setting seem unnecessary. If you want that angle, it is much easier to set the story now.
Despite its problems, at times this book was enjoyable. I loved spending time with Arthur and his daughter as they chatted away, and I loved the burgeoning relationship between Lizzette and Busisiwe. As a book about human interaction, it shines. But as a commentary on the climate crisis, race, and our ever-evolving understanding of gender and sexuality? In trying to cover all these things, Water Must Fall fails to bring a sharp focus to any of them.