In these days of environmental disaster and economic insecurity, post-apocalyptic fiction is all the rage. Over in the non-fiction aisles, meanwhile, pundits prognosticate a dismal future for Africa. Melanie Crowder has brought these two trends together, at the same time liberating us from them, in her first novel, Parched.
Parched is the story of three entities living in an un-named African country rapidly becoming uninhabitable. There’s Sarel, the tow-headed girl of the country, who survives her parent’s murder by merging with her pack of Rhodesian ridgebacks. Then there’s Nandi, the matriarch of the pack, who has a dog’s sense of danger and opportunity. Finally, there’s the boy Musa, whose own senses allow him to find water where there seems to be none.
Musas skill is no small knack, for water is what everyone wants in the beleaguered dystopian future Crowder gives to her readers. The apocalypse in Parched. seems to have arrived not with a bang, but a whimper. As the rains failed, water sources dried up and people moved into the cities. Government failed, and the urban areas were quickly divided among gangs like the red-scarved Tandie, who kidnap Musa once they discover his ability to dowse for water. This information is given to them courtesy of Musa’s brother Dingane, whose apparent betrayal occurs for reasons ultimately revealed in the last moments of the book.
Sarel, too, is a victim of the Tandie. The novel begins when she is orphaned by a raid on her homestead by their gunmen, who murder her parents in an attempt to discern the source of their water. In fact, they are relying on a small well that is rapidly drying up. Following the raid, Sarel desperately seeks a new source of water with her dogs. Both are highly present throughout the book. In fact, water and dogs could be said to be major characters, their personalities defining in many ways Sarel and Musas struggle to survive.
At moments, Parched. reads like an Africanized version of Cormac McCarthy’s ”The Road”, with sand replacing ash and brightness replacing darkness. While somewhat disjointed from geography, it logically seems to build on a South African framework with characters whose names are Sarel (Afrikaans) and Dingane (isiZulu). This disjuncture may be intentional, or it may be a result of the apparent lack of a close connection to the region for the author. In many ways, it works for the novel, which is more an exploration of its human and canine actors than of an African context. Readers looking for an African story may be disappointed, but those looking for realistic fiction loosely set in Africa will enjoy the fine storytelling. Recommended
Reviewed by: Trevor R. Getz, San Francisco State University
Grade: Elementary / Middle
Published in Africa Access Review (February 10, 2014)
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