Mark Twain once said: “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.” In Karen Jayes’s debut novel, For the Mercy of Water, she constructs a world that does exactly that. Set in the midst of a fierce battle over the world’s most precious natural resource, water has become a commodity that is controlled by what is only known as “the company”.
The cities don’t bear the brunt of the water shortages but far away from the urban areas, in the isolated towns and villages, it is a different story. All the towns’ inhabitants have fled to the city in search of water that will quench their thirst. Those who stay behind are “the grandmothers” who are left in the towns to look after the young girls.
A rare rainfall leads the company to one such town where an old woman named Mother is found with a classroom of girls she has been looking after. A brutal confrontation occurs between the company guards and the girls, which leads a doctor, two aid workers, a journalist and a writer to the town to find out the truth about what really happened.
On the face of it, it may seem that Jayes has written an environmental story sermonising about the consequences of humans not looking after water. It may also seem that Jayes has penned a sci-fi novel that imagines an alternate reality while imitating our own. The truth is that For the Mercy of Water fits into neither of these categories. What makes it so chilling is that the use of water as a political tool is something that is not entirely out of the realm of possibility because water wars have already occurred. In Botswana, for instance, the government sought to remove the Khoisan people from the Kalahari Desert by destroying their bore holes in an effort to cut their water supply. In 2000, in the Bolivian city of Cochobamba, a series of protests occurred after the government sold the municipal water supply to private company Semapa. This lead to uprisings that saw masses of people protesting against water prices which were set to increase by as much as 50%.
Ignacio Saiz, the executive director of the Centre for Economic and Social Rights told Al Jazeera that unequal power relations will be the greatest source of social tensions rising from deprivation:
“Water too often is treated as an instrument with which one population group can suppress another.”
More than that, though, For the Mercy of Water is a novel that explores gender-based violence, a topic that hits a sore spot for South Africans following the brutal rape and murder of Anene Booysen in February this year. Using striking descriptions that border on being tenderly poetic, Jayes uses the destruction of the environment to reflect on the destruction and suppression of the female body. It is Mother who explains this strong feminist metaphor:
“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 in this blood and water and the way that he is lying blind, that we are busy down there fighting a war over our bodies. We are fighting a war over every piece of life in all of us. It is down to this last thing, and it will consume us. We will consume us.”
Jayes seeks to recognise the victims of sexual violence in the book by naming each of them and referring to the remaining characters by their occupation only. In this way, Eve, Noni, Annette, Isalida, all the victims who will come before them, and all those who will come after them, are acknowledged meaningfully.
At first I found it difficult to connect with the nameless characters because I wanted to know more about them. I formed a picture of them in my mind while I was reading but I couldn’t look to the text for any clues that could confirm that the picture I was painting in my imagination the correct. This was a genius stroke on the part of Jayes who, by making the characters anonymous, forces the reader to confront any stereotypes they may have about race and class.
In the same way that the characters are mysteriously unnamed, so is the place in which the plot unfolds. Jayes shows us that this projection of reality could take place anywhere and at any time. For the Mercy of Water is debilitating as it reflects the sickening way in which violence against women is perpetuated. But it is also exhilarating as it offers refreshingly strong yet intricate female characters that triumph despite this.