Hout Bay will never be the same again. Margie Orford’s dark vision of corrupt minds and hearts seething behind a facade of bland normalcy in that seemingly idyllic resort... well... it gives one the willies.
The local tourism officials may well take umbrage at her view, but, perhaps not; they have long had to cope with the problem of reconciling the pristine with burgeoning township blues and other worries.
Water Music is a truly pacey thriller. Orford has perfected the art of the cross-cut, with short, punchy chapters begging to be filmed. Newcomers to the detective exploits of Dr Clare Hart (the gutsy heroine of a whole slew of Orford tales) will recognise the realistic, tough-but-tender heroine as a harried creature of our time. She works hard, but squeezes in a little R&R for passion between police alarm calls.
The coppers are portrayed with startling accuracy. Clearly, the author has spent time with the guardians of the law, and she understands the world-weary attitude necessary to retaining sanity in servicing a violent society.
Their contempt for the political opportunists imposed on the leadership of the force is briskly conveyed, and a nasty new boss with Pretoria connections gets his come-uppance in a satisfying confrontation.
The nub of the book is the obscenity of child abuse, and we know all about that in Cape Town, don’t we? Orford has taken the risk of exploiting this depressing depravity, but moderates the horror by dressing it in curiously gothic mode.
The turreted mini-Neuschwanstein fake castle which broods over Hout Bay clearly stimulated Orford’s imagination. It figures sinisterly in the tale. Whether she also researched odd Hout Bay characters and characteristics in delineating the cast of killers, thieves and assorted creeps is not specified.
Nice, polite readers may be incredulous about the depths of evil
depicted in the story, but credibility exists in the statistical facts of South African police work. Constant friction and fear in the execution of difficult duty is shown to take its toll on the front line, but essentially the cops are seen to persevere in mostly thankless jobs.
Orford is clearly sympathetic to the plight of the lawmen. In Water Music, wickedness is exacerbated in poignant contrast with the great natural beauty of the setting. Your average bobby is shown to plod on, despite confronting cruelty, drug ruins and sundry other horrors daily, and presumably he restricts gawping at the scenery to days off. Which ought reassure suburbia.
Water Music does not evoke Handel’s glorious picnic entertainment for George IV, but it does suggest the plangent tones of the cello in imagining the plight of a desperate young musician in terrifying trouble.
Creaking-door enthusiasts are well served with dark forebodings, red herrings and lively characterisation.
The protracted denouement is handled deftly, but the actual ending is curiously perfunctory. Perhaps the unsatisfactory final scene is deliberately fudged because Clare Hart must return to fight the good fight. She sails off into the sunset with a giant cliffhanger unresolved.
Orford’s international legion of fans will be waiting.
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