Weeping Waters (Huilwater) is a crime fiction novel translated from the Afrikaans and set in a small town on the platteland in the Northern Cape (near Postmasburg and Upington). It is a very dry, hot area where water is scarce. Many of the farmers have turned from sheep and cattle farming and begun game farms to attract tourists.
The inhabitants of the town and the surrounding farms form a patchwork of personality types, ethnic origins and political beliefs; fairly representative of South Africa as a whole, where competing belief systems have long been at war. The tensions between the different groups are portrayed well through dialogue and action.
The white farmers believe that farm murders across the country are part of a coordinated, government-inspired assault on them and are designed to exterminate them as a group. Although I am extremely uncomfortable with this view (as propagated by the likes of Steve Hofmeyer), this is how a section of our population thinks. So it is perhaps better to explore it in a novel rather than pretend it does not exist.
Inspector Beeslaar (Bees) is a semi-reluctant counter to the right wing farmers as he tries to explain that farm attacks are not a special crime category. He hails from the Murder and Robbery Squad in Johannesburg where he blotted his copybook after having been deemed to commit a racist assault on a colleague (he, of course, has an excuse for his violence). He has been given a last chance by being sent to this backwater and has to ensure he does not blot his copybook again. His boss, Superintendent Mogale, who is based in Upington, loses no opportunity to remind Bees of his precarious position coupled with rubbing it in that the whites are no longer in charge. His two sergeants are so-called Coloured policeman from the area, “both of them rookies with zero experience.”
Bees is bitter about his position, plagued with personal issues and is extremely impatient and abusive to them, even laughing at Pyl’s battle with the English language when interviewed by the media. Despite this, he has a humane empathetic side such as in his treatment of the street child, Bulelani. The portrayal of Bees is far more rounded than the portrayal of the superintendent and the two sergeants, who are typical stereotypes. This makes them less credible. Once again, it reflects how so many people perceive those who they do not really know. There is progression in their relationships during the novel as they develop an understanding of each other and during this progress the characters show different dimensions. It goes a little way in improving the stereotypical representations, although this does seem engineered.
Bees is tasked with preventing right-wing insurrection and solving recent stock theft when Freddie Swarts and her adopted child, Klara, are brutally murdered at the farm, Huilwater. Freddie is an artist and a free spirit with liberal ideas regarding land restoration that do not go down very well in the district. She has adopted a Griqua child, Klara and had been involved in helping those in need. Her manager is Adam de Kok, known as a ‘Bushman’ but of Griqua descent; he naturally becomes the prime suspect without very good reason. He is a very interesting character who had been close to Freddie. The white farmers are in an uproar at yet another farm murder but Sara, Klara’s estranged sister who lives in Cape Town, believes the staging of the body points to something other than a typical farm murder. Sara’s return to the area is fraught with fear, sadness and guilt as she not only tries to investigate the murder but is also tormented by regrets of her own rejection of Freddie, tantamount to having killed her off, herself.
Nelmari Viljoen is Freddie’s agent from Johannesburg who was instrumental in publicising her work. She is distraught at the death of her closest friend but is somehow never available to help Sara. Boet Pretorius, a farmer new to the area, who initially discovered the mutilated bodies is another character that seems to have plenty to hide. Throw a few more murders into the mix, sinister dead animals being left at the farm, the right wing farmers trying to resurrect the Commandos and Bees struggling to navigate his way through this explosive mix, and you have all the ingredients of suspense and mystery required for crime fiction.
The pace is good, the dialogue convincing, the sense of place well described and the different strands, such as Freddie’s disturbing art pieces and elements of Griqua history that were woven into the text, add some interesting dimensions to this novel. Some of the actions of the characters do not always make sense such as a fearful character visiting an isolated farm alone when there is a murderer at large. This stretched my credibility.
Despite my reservations about this and the representations of different races, to some degree these initial perceptions are subverted during the course of the novel and everything is not quite what it seems. I really enjoyed the setting and the insights into small town life. Weeping Waters is an entertaining read despite its flaws.