Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Dust and Death: Parched by Melanie Crowder

They were looking for the secret store of water that had sustained the family while the drought sucked the life out of every other living thing.

They had been searching for the old well. But they hadn't known to look past the house, to a ring of stones that marked the place where steps curved down into a cave underground, with a pump and a small pool set into the far end, fed by the deep well Sarel's grandfather's grandfather had dug when he first settled the land.

The men with the guns and the blood-red flags hadn't known to look for the grotto. A grotto belonged in a land where brine and mist filled the air, where water spilled into every solid space.

Not here. Not in this place of dust and death.

The river bottom is filled with dust, few plants survive, and the land is filled with roving gangs who kill for water. Sorel and her dogs, out foraging through the dry morning grass, stay hidden when a gang raids their farm, shoots her parents, and in frustration set fire to their house. Now Nandi, her Rhodesian ridgeback mother dog, and her puppies are Sarel's only companions as she buries her parents under stones, packs up the last water from the grotto pool and set out to search for food and water in what is now endless desert.

Meanwhile, the boy Musa, bartered by his older brother Dingane to the Mandie gang because of his dowsing talents, has his manacles removed and is taken into the countryside to look for water, water that is nowhere to be found in the city or countryside around it. Musa senses there is water, much underground water somewhere to the south, and when he manages to escape from his captors, he flees toward the water he hopes to be found there.

Sarel manages to stay alive by foraging for roots and her dogs hunt and share their kills with her, but even they are beginning to succumb to thirst when they find Musa, very weak and near death. Grudgingly Sarel takes him back to the grotto and shares what little water still seeps to the surface there until he is strong enough to convince her that he believes water is near and that he can find it. But they are too weak to search very far from the ruined farm house. And then Dingane and the gang who had held Musa come, still searching for him, and Sarel and Musa escape again into the desert without hope.

The gang kills Dingane, and fleeing, Musa and Sarel lose each other. It seems that each must die alone in this wasteland.

Then Sarel remembers something her mother had once told her.

Rainwater tunnels through porous rock, until it is brittle as a sun-bleached bone; until one day the ground falls away, causing a yawning pit that lays bare the world beneath.

A sinkhole.

It was from there Sarel heard Musa shout.

There's the water of life down deep in Melanie Crowder's debut novel, Parched (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) in a novel that is as intense as the heat, as searing as the drought which is as much an enemy as the roving gang of young warlords that the characters flee. Told in three voices, the voice of Sorel, Musa,and of Sorel's dog Nandi, the story of this novel is one of survival under the most extreme of circumstances, a drought which has turned a land flowing with water, a place of rivers, fountains and green lawns, into a baking desert. But like the thorn trees from which Sarel harvests bitter fruit and the baobab tree which Musa taps for its store of water, Crowder's characters have deep roots in life, and how they continue is an absorbing story of the will to survive. Stark and arresting, a story of despair and hope and friendship which stays deep in the memory, this novel lays bare the essence of what human life is at its source.

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