Book Review: Under Water (J. L. Powers)
Reviewed by Amelia Cotter
"Here we are, young still but holding the world heavy in our hands." (78)
Under Waterby J.L. Powers details the life and struggles of a seventeen-year-old South African girl trying to find her way in a difficult setting. Touching on topics like independence, spirituality, and the importance of family, Under Water provides a wonderful short read for teens and adults.
A sequel to This Thing Called the Future, the first chapter is set three years earlier, recounting the tasks she had to complete when the amadlozi chose her, including her new ability to breathe Under Water. Picking up after the death of her gogo, or grandmother, the protagonist, Khosi, is left alone to provide for herself and sister. Their mother had previously died of AIDS, and their aunt and uncle believe she used witchcraft to kill gogo, so the two have no other family. Khosi uses her gift for spiritual healing to try earning money to take care of herself and sister, Zi, with additional help from her boyfriend, who works for a taxi company. Violence begins to spur in the Imbali community, anda Somali store-owner comes to Khosi, feeling he has been targeted. With the return of taxi wars, her boyfriend, Little Man, becomes involved and Khosi begins to push him away, wanting to protect herself and Zi. Both afraid and angry, the two argue and stop speaking.
One night, the girls hear strange noises and see a man outside, eventually stopping until the next morning, when Khosi finds a crowd of people and the body of the store-owner, at their gate. When talking to the police about the event, she bonds with a young cop named Sifiso. They continue to see each other, making her question what remains of her relationship with Little Man. Full of conflict, she finally listens to the voices of the amadlozi, her ancestors. Gogo urges her to do what is right and resist the taxi war. Khosi has wanted to leave the area for a while, but the amadlozi will not let her, instead insist that she stays to fight. They say the life of a sangoma is difficult, and not for the weak. As the story progresses, Khosi learns that she is pregnant and wants to visit Little Man before choosing who to continue her life with. To her horror, she learns that he has been shot and visits him in the hospital, only to find he has changed for the worse. When they return, the amadlozitell her to visit a witch's house, but when they make it back to their hut, they find three men waiting to attack them, who kidnap and take them out of Imbali. Finding a time to escape the men, Khosi and Zi run to the river, using her ability to breathe Under Water to get away. The story closes as Khosi calls Sofiso to assure him they are safe, but they will not return to Imbali for a while.
The reader can relate to some of Khosi's struggles, and understand her conflicts by connecting herexperiences to personal situations and troubles. While they may be less extreme, Khosi finds herself fighting to do so many things for herself and sister, just as many teens attempt to juggle various responsibilities and activities to please those around them, while trying to still find time for their interests. Young and ambitious, she has ideas for her future, but is forced to drop out of school and take on a role of leadership, halting her plans for a career in modern medicine. Leaving school was something she had promised her grandmother never to let happen, but money grew scarce, forcing her out, disappointed and feeling guilty. There is no perfect choice, and the shame she feels can be easily sympathized to. Balancing her practice, relationships, and taking care of her sister, Khosi leads a difficult life with internal as well as external conflicts, but manages to keep trying for a better one.
Khosi and Zi demonstrate the importance of family through their devotion and concern for one another throughout the book. In dangerous times, Zi is Khosi's first thought, and thinks of herself as Zi's protector. They have been through much together, such as death and violence, and rely on one another for support. When helping a customer heal her child, Khosi sees the woman's ancestor behind her. "She was an older sister, one that died when this woman was very young, but they had bonded in the way of sisters. And now the older one stays with the younger, to protect and love her. If I were to die before Zi, that is exactly how I would be. Fierce and protective" (88).Their closeness is heartfelt, making the reader appreciate strong relationships and the support that they offer. While created from unpleasant experiences, the tight bond they have created benefits the two in dismal times.
In addition to an eventful story, spirituality, death, and the choice between right and wrong come up quite often. As a sangoma, Khosi holds views that balance both modern medicine with traditional ways. She does not follow the specific rules, and alters the practice to fit her view of the modern world, believing there should be no right or wrong way.This aspect to her faith is unique and admirable, as she is shaping the tradition to make room for herself instead of following the expectations in order to keep with others. Khosi often brings up her views on death, as it seems to surround them. After being so exposed to violence, she becomes more open to the concept of dying. She says "So you see, death isn't the end of life…We don't know what we will find when we go to the other side but we know we will greeted by all our loved ones" (67). Believing in the amadlozi gives her a greater comfort in death, one that most readers also share. The similarities in different cultures are interesting to read about, as well as the subject of personal beliefs and the after-life. Khosi finds herself deliberating about right versus wrong when it comes to her values and standing up against the taxi wars, realizing "[w]e spend so much of our lives avoiding death. But what if that's the wrong way approach life? What if it's better to live on the razor-edge, right between the margins between life and death, one foot in each world? Then we wouldn't be so afraid to do the right thing, no matter what it costs us" (117). Again connecting to the reader through internal conflicts, she encourages herself as well as others to stand up for what they see to be right. Her story reminds people to stay unafraid and true to themselves.
Under Water is an entertaining and thoughtful novel for a young person to take time to read. The story is written in language that is easy to follow, with exception to the inserted Zulu words, which are contained in a glossary in the back. Additionally, the author's extensive research on South African culture shows through, adding depth to the story. Offering an interesting plot, a strong role model, and topics to think about, the writing provides an interesting and quick read.
Title: Under Water