Don’t mention the A-word

June 3, 2011 § 2 Comments

But Can You Drink the WaterBut Can You Drink the Water? – Jan Hurst-Nicholson
Just4Kix Books
Kindle £0.70 ($0.99)

Jan Hurst-Nicholson emigrated from England to South Africa in 1972. Her novel is set 16 years later in 1988, but you get the feeling she knows what she’s talking about.

The book follows the fortunes of Frank and Mavis Turner and their 15-year-old son Gerry from the moment the wheels of the 747 hit the runway at Louis Botha airport. They are a working class family from Liverpool, Scousers to the core. Frank has signed a five-year contract to work in Durban, dragging his reluctant wife and resentful, Mohican-topped offspring with him.

Hurst-Nicholson has a lot of fun with these innocents abroad, doubly baffled by a strange country with its alien climate, food, customs and wildlife, and by their sudden promotion to the bourgeoisie. They survive first encounters with sunburn, geckos, brinjal, litchi and naartjie and discover that, yes, you can drink the water.

Many of the jokes are at their expense, know-it-all know-nothings, but there are wider targets too. The author has a wicked eye for absurdity in the culture they have left behind. Mavis is impressed that their new home has an en-suite bathroom, but the thing that strikes her first is the toilet paper:

“And decent loo paper too,” she noted, accustomed to the cheap, wood chipped Bronco sheets her mother insisted on because her dad wound them into spills for his pipe.

Very amusing – at first. After a while, though, the digs begin to seem a bit relentless. This is partly because the pitch of the writing varies very little, but partly also because there is really only one gag: the Turners are ignorant and badly educated, conditioned to their cold, wet, council house terraced lives in Liverpool and totally at sea in the wider world. When they have begun to settle in and Gerry has acquired a crew cut and a tan, Mavis’s parents come out for a three month stay and the same jokes are wheeled out again. The parents go home, and her sister and brother-in-law visit… Hurst-Nicholson has some touching insights into the rootlessness of the recent emigrant – ill at ease in the old country and the new, homesick for both – but the surrounding humour is repetitive and rather cruel.

I was a little confused by the period. The Turners arrive in 1988 but the references to Bronco and Green Shield Stamps, outside toilets and slipper baths suggest that the Britain they have left behind belongs to a slightly earlier date. And I find it hard to believe that they could really be that stupid. OK, I’m a whinging Pom myself, but in 1988 we were already a nation of TV watchers, with the spurious sophistication that implies. Surely nobody would land in South Africa expecting jungle drums?

And of course in 1988 other things were going on.

PW Botha’s challenge to fellow Afrikaners to “adapt or die” was ten years in the past when this story begins, and some petty apartheid laws had been repealed, but between 1986 and 1989 there were still an estimated 30,000 people held without trial during various states of emergency. In 1988 there were attacks on police and army installations every month (you can find a list here). Under sanctions South Africa’s economy was one of the weakest in the world and sportsmen were banned from taking part in international events. Mandela still had another two years to serve.

By the end of Frank Turner’s five year contract Mandela would have been a free man, a Nobel prize-winner and only months away from the presidency; apartheid would be at an end. Are these momentous events even mentioned? The Turners have a black maid and one of the jokes is that they have no idea how to treat her. That’s all we get. (In fact they treat her rather well: as an employee.)

A disappointing book. I was hoping for something anecdotal in the style of James Herriot or Gervase Phinn, but although Hurst-Nicholson has a sharp observational wit, her writing lacks their generosity.

But Can You Drink the Water? Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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§ 2 Responses to Don’t mention the A-word

  • Thank you so much for your comprehensive and insightful review. Although I wrote the book in 1988, you are correct in that much of the action did in fact take place during the 1970s. I have now edited it and set in the 1970s.
    The novel began as a 13 episode sitcom, and I based many of the incidents on my own experiences, and those of fellow expats (you’d be surprised at how ignorant some of us actually were!) When the producer couldn’t sell the sitcom I turned the episodes into chapters and made them into a novel (three chapters were published as short stories). Had I begun the book as a novel I would probably have written it from a different angle and given the story more depth, and less visual gags. (I’m still hoping it will fall into the hands of an astute producer.)
    Thanks once again.
    Jan Hurst-Nicholson

  • Stephen West says:

    You say no English people would arrive expecting jungle drums, but when I lived in South Africa in the ’90s and went to pick up a visiting English work colleague from the airport he was genuinely surprised that we had modern highways and high-rise buildings. And he was an educated City investment analyst. TV does play a role, but not in the way you think: he was expecting nothing but shanty towns and bushveld!

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