History is dominated by people including everyday people. One of the benefits for authors of historical is the ability to bring to life fictional characters set into real life events. This adds a layer of accessibility right from the start and eases the reader into the wonderful world of history. K. P. Kollenborn’s novel How the Water Falls is a fabulous addition to the vibrant and turbulent history of South Africa.
Set in the final years of the apartheid era in South Africa, Kollenborn’s novel centers on two females. Joanne is a white reporter and Lena is a banned black activist. Their paths cross and the two ultimately become friends. Joanne uses her position as a reporter to question and examine corruption within the government. At first, her exploration is tainted with her idealism. However, as she delves deeper into the issues Joanne begins to understand the plight of all those involved, even the ones guilty of violence. Lena is a tenacious fighter who has to face overwhelming obstacles and acts of violence to have her voice heard.
The author follows South African history, but the tale never loses focus on the heart of the matter: that these violent and confusing years affected all the people in the country, not just the victims but the perpetrators. Kollenborn doesn’t offer any apologies for either side, but she’s brutally honest in her storytelling. Her handling of the character Hans Borghost, a police commissioner, is admirable. Hans is not a likable character, yet the author doesn’t go out of her way to demonize the character. Kollenborn lets Hans actions speak for him and allows the reader to decide. This restraint adds a rich layer and ultimately makes it even more believable.
While the two women are admirable characters for their strength, determination and guts, Jared Borghost is perhaps the most memorable. Jared, Hans younger brother, is also guilty of many crimes all under the guise of he was just following orders. While Hans never questions if his actions as the police commissioner are justifiable, Jared is conflicted. Through this character Kollenborn is able to offer the reader hope. If a stubborn, irascible, and opinionated man like Jared can step back and take a hard look at not only his actions, but the actions of the government that he supports, doesn’t that mean all of us can?
This is a powerful story that reads like a thriller. Even if the reader is familiar with the history, many will be on the edge of their seats to find out what happens to Joanne, Lena, Hans, and Jared. The author doesn’t hold back when describing violent events and actions. This makes for difficult reading at times, but it stays true to history.
It’s quite impressive that Kollenborn, an American who never lived in South Africa during the times she’s describing can tell such a vivid and convincing tale. She opted to stay true to the dialect. This takes some getting used to but once a reader settles into it, it’s another way for the reader to be magically transported to a different place and to a different time.