I think it's very possible that I already knew too much about how South Africa's majority population freed themselves from apartheid before I read this book. So there were relatively few revelations for me. The characterization, however, was really wonderful. Kollenborn delved for the truth at the core of her protagonists. She was never simplistic. They were all multi-dimensional human beings. Another aspect of this novel that I really appreciated was the extent to which conflict was about family loyalties which have a far stronger hold on individuals than abstract ideals.
The cover shows us the three central characters. First we see Lena, the political activist and aspiring writer. Next to her we see Joanne, the established journalist and sympathizer with the aspirations of the anti-apartheid movement. Finally, we see Jared, a South African policeman who undergoes an unexpected crisis. In the beginning of my reading process, I referred back to the cover because the artist’s conception of these characters helped to anchor them in my mind.
Eventually, all three of the protagonists made a powerful impression on me. I asked myself why I felt one character relationship was the emotional heart of the novel. Since the characters were both white, I wondered if I was being racist. I decided that I felt that way because of the barriers between the two characters. Audiences have been transfixed by characters who have been divided by their backgrounds since Romeo and Juliet. Kollenborn shows us that there could be huge chasms between white people in South Africa. I did think that the central relationship of the novel was intended to be the bond of friendship that developed between the two female protagonists, but it wasn’t freighted with the kind of dramatic intensity that would have made it feel significant to me.
I also would have preferred fewer information dumps. I admit that some information was definitely necessary to the plot. I discovered that “necklacing” was far more horrific than I had previously imagined. Another revelation was a brief mention of the Irish Republican Army's assistance to a South African terrorist. After reading about that incident in Kollenborn's novel, I found an article called Black Provos: The ANC and the IRA . I had thought that this relationship only existed in paranoid propaganda from the supporters of apartheid, but the IRA really did instruct and train South African terrorists.
The study guide for book clubs asked questions that were thought provoking, but there was no question about the Truth and Reconciliation process. The character Joanne wondered if this process really could heal South Africa. Truth and Reconciliation is an offer of amnesty to those who murdered and tortured people with official government sanction on the condition that they describe and admit to their crimes in a public hearing. I first encountered it in a novel called Red Dust by Gillian Slovo. There has also been an excellent movie based on this novel starring Hillary Swank and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Find out more about it at IMDB. I think that book groups will want to discuss how this novel depicts Truth and Reconciliation, and whether it’s an effective policy for South Africa.
How The Water Falls by K.P. Kollenborn testifies to the capacity of individuals to bring about social change. The protagonists are only a small sample of the type of courage and commitment that was shown by a great many individuals in South Africa during the period that brought about the end of apartheid. Without them no change would have happened. The stories of Kollenborn’s fictional exemplars are inspirational.