Tuesday, January 04, 2011

REVIEW: "But Can You Drink the Water?" by Jan Hurst-Nicholson

Frank and Mavis Turner, and their teenage son, Gerry, are your typical Liverpool family.  Liverpool is the only life they've ever really known, and it's a satisfying, if uneventful, life. When Frank is offered- and accepts- a job in Durban, South Africa, he turns his family's lives upside-down. Dragging along a sullen Gerry and a reluctant Mavis, Frank excitedly embarks upon his new adventure. This novel follows the Turner family as they explore Durban and come to terms with their new surroundings, and it does this by finding the humor in their experiences. The Turners meet their neighbors, get to know the land and the local creatures, and struggle to find their place in a new land. Through visits from family, and a visit back "home," the Turners get to see themselves through another filter as they realize just how different they have become from that Liverpool family who left to embark upon an African adventure.

With nicely developed characters and enough description to help readers envision the setting, Jan Hurst-Nicholson has injected a bit of humor into this story of how much life can change in just a few short years. The Turners' speech is strongly imbued with a dialect that I assume is typical of those who live in Liverpool, adding more context and texture to the characters. Although these speech patterns may throw unaccustomed readers for a loop as they adjust, it's an integral part of the characterization. The story follows the Turner family as they get to know their surroundings, but I was a little confused about the timing. It wasn't always clear to me how much time had elapsed in various points in the story, and the time didn't seem marked by major life events for the Turners (with the exception of the visits from Mavis' parents and her sister). As a result, it almost felt as if we had been riding a really long moving walkway with interesting sights along the way. Typical of real life, we dragged along at times as we watched the Turners just experience life in Durban.

The book is interesting and readable, and I was curious to discover what happened to the Turners along the way. The premise is a bit "fish out of water" and it was fascinating, but I think it could have gone so much further. I enjoyed the ride, but I felt like we weren't really going anywhere. I think there were a few major themes going on here; one was the evolution and growth of the Turner family, and the other was highlighting the differences between life in Liverpool and life in Durban in a humorous way. I wasn't sure which was meant to be the main idea, as neither felt to me to be completely developed. Although this story is described as "humorous," I almost felt it was more literary, just with a lighter side. The story felt less about the funny happenings that the Turners experience, as I expected it would be, and more about a family coming to new realizations about what it means to feel "at home."

I enjoyed this story, overall. I thought it came together more at the end, making it worth the read along the way. Satisfying, like a warm cup of cocoa, but without the clear focus I expected.

3 /5 stars

Available at Amazon


just4kix said...

Thank you for the thorough and insightful review. Perhaps I should explain that the book began as a sitcom of 13 episodes and was (very loosely) based on my experiences and those of fellow expats. When the sitcom producer couldn’t get funding I turned the episodes into a novel, and this is probably why you felt the lack of a deeper plot, and that you were viewing the story from a moving walkway. I will look at ways of adding another dimension to the plot.
It is very much ‘British humour’ which depends on a shared background and recognition of the characters, dialect and situations. The title ‘But Can You Drink The Water?’ is a familiar phrase to British readers, but may not be recognized as humour by US readers who could possibly mistake it for a book about the environment.
Thanks again
Jan Hurst-Nicholson

GraceKrispy said...

Hi Jan!

Thanks so much for your comments and further explanation. I hope US readers give your book a try :)