Contemporary Johannesburg is the setting for this impressive debut about an unlikely trio of women brought together in the wake of a Canadian water executive’s murder. Under cover of night, an activist group, led by a young woman named Nomsulwa Sithu, digs up water pipes installed earlier in the day. The group hopes to stop the privatization that has led to widespread water shortages and cholera outbreaks. An employee for the water company, Peter Matthews, arrives from Toronto, demanding to know why local authorities have failed to protect his company’s work. After butting heads with local councillors, Matthews spends a drunken night on the town and leaves a young girl with a bloody lip. The next day his desecrated body turns up in a field.
Zembe Afrika, the police chief, is under pressure to pin the murder on a local gang. Zembe, however, soon realizes there are others who might have been motivated to get Matthews out of the way. The arrival of Matthews’ daughter Claire, who is desperate to learn everything she can about her father’s murder, further complicates matters. Having turned a blind eye to the pipe theft, Zembe now decides to call in a favour from the reluctant Nomsulwa, asking her to chaperone Claire and keep her away from the investigation.
Ruby-Sachs portrays her three female characters with deft precision, the subtle chemistry between them forming the basis for the novel’s emotional and narrative arc. Claire Matthews turns out to be nothing like the privileged white girl Nomsulwa had imagined, and the unexpected attraction Ruby-Sachs convincingly builds between the two is made all the more torturous because Nomsulwa knows more about the murder than she can safely reveal. Nomsulwa is also thrown by Claire’s loyalty to her father. Her own father was a martyr to the nation, but a violent and unpredictable parent, “The kind of man who could break your fingers one moment and then hold them in his cool, broad hands with complete love the next.”
The novel is a comment on post-apartheid South Africa – where the murder of a white man still matters more than the murder of a black man – without resorting to didacticism. The Water Man’s Daughter plays like a classic whodunit, but its true mystery involves how much we really know about others – especially those people we think we know best.