Monday, November 23, 2020

the last book I read

Behind The Waterfall by Georgina Andrewes.

Jo Kelly is restless. Sure, she's got some useful qualifications and a nice steady boyfriend, Rick, but he's a bit squishy and unambitious and she has a yearning for adventure and to be doing things that matter in some way. So she signs up for a project to build water infrastructure with a women's group in Kenya, something that will put her engineering qualifications to good use.

Rick isn't especially happy about it, as Jo's assessment of the state of their relationship (basically that they're bimbling along amiably enough but not really going anywhere) is a bit of an unpleasant surprise to him, and harsh words are exchanged, but in a way this just makes Jo's decision to go easier. She arrives in Kenya and reports to the headquarters of the international aid agency she'll be working for, whereupon she is introduced to Mr. Katambo, the regional administrator for the village where she'll be living and working. He has taken it upon himself to provide transport for the long drive to Kingangi village, but the journey turns out to be even more protracted then Jo had anticipated, as several stops are made on the way to run various errands and drink beer.

This experience, and the discovery that the house Jo is supposed to be living in is a bit of a shambles, soon knock the corners off Jo's misty-eyed idealism, as do the thinly-veiled hostility and suspicion from some of the women she is supposed to be whipping into shape as a well-drilled self-empowered feminist water-engineering collective. But the country is beautiful, exotic and mysterious and the neighbours are friendly and generous. In particular Jo befriends Jerusa, the young woman next door, and through her meets Isaiah, a teacher at a local school and a fiercely intelligent political activist, with whom she starts a relationship. 

This is all very lovely, of course, but there are certain realities in a post-colonial country like Kenya that make an interracial relationship tricky. Is Jo just sleeping with Isaiah because she fancied an exotic shag? Similarly, is Isaiah just clocking up a notch on his bedpost so that he can boast to his friends later about fucking a white woman? Other questions arise as well: is Isaiah's commitment to political activism going to get him into trouble? Is Jo going to see any progress on her project or is she just going to spend all her time writing grant applications to various agencies? Will she be able to overcome Mr. Katambo's scepticism about having a female engineer in charge of his project?

Other realities intervene brutally when Jo's house is broken into at night by a gang of knife-wielding men, one of whom rapes her. She is then subjected to a further ordeal when she reports the attack to the police, the police chief asking why she hadn't resisted more, and implying that she must have either encouraged the assault or enjoyed it when it happened. In the face of this discouragement Jo nonetheless insists on bringing a case, and finds an unexpectedly resolute ally in Mr. Katambo. Isaiah, meanwhile, is notable by his absence, having been caught up in the events of the failed military coup in Nairobi. 

The wheels of justice turn slowly, though, and Jo returns to work and resumes living in her house. Rick travels out from England to spend time with her, and they resume their relationship in a non-committal sort of way. Rick eventually departs, and Jo's superiors at the aid agency inform her that they've regretfully decided that they can't guarantee her safety and that they're therefore terminating her placement. With the trial of her rapist in its final stages, a big fund-raising event for the village in the offing, and Isaiah now returned safely from Nairobi, Jo has to decide whether to try to make a future in Africa, or return home.

That's the story in rough chronological order - it's not presented that way in the book, though; we're plunged straight into Jo's night-time assault and rape on page one. The rest of the story plays out in a series of jumps backwards and forwards in time after that scene. This stuff never happens by accident, and the idea presumably was that the brutal opening would cast a shadow over the rest of the book, the scenes set before the rape in particular. It's impossible to view Jo's innocent delight at discovering the village and her neighbours, and her carefree outdooor fucking with Isaiah (including on a ledge behind a waterfall near the village, an episode which gives the novel its title) in quite the same light, knowing what we know.

It's a fairly short book (under 200 pages) which has some interesting points to make about Western intervention in post-colonial Africa, even those interventions made out of a genuine desire to help and do good, which cannot help but be tainted by the obvious fact of Western interference having fucked up many of these countries in the first place. Throw interpersonal and interracial relationships into the mixed-up mess of power structures and things get messy pretty quickly. 

Behind The Waterfall doesn't do anything terribly startling, but on its own terms I think it works pretty well, and Jo is an engaging central character. It makes a lot of the same points about Western intervention in post-colonial Africa as The Poisonwood Bible, though less luridly and more concisely. Other novels on this list to have been set principally in Africa include A Good Man In Africa (obviously) and Henderson The Rain King in central(ish) Africa and Memory Of Snow And Of Dust, The Conservationist, Age Of Iron, The Good Doctor and Frankie & Stankie in South Africa. 

Behind The Waterfall also won a Betty Trask Award (an award specifically for first novels) in 1988; the most recent book on this list to win the same award was Pig, whose review contains a links to a few others. 

No comments: