Book Review: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
I heard about The Water Knife on Books on the Nightstand, where they were discussing cli-fi or climate-fiction. Their summary of a dystopia plagued by climate change where water shortages leave everyone in the American Southwest vying for control of various water rights hooked me immediately. Since I live in Arizona, water scarcity is a topic that truly frightens me. And this book flew by for me.
The first 100 pages I read in a couple of sittings. Once the plot took off, though, I had one of those nights where I was up well past my bed-time turning page after page dying to know what would happen next. I finally had to force myself to sleep and I picked up the book two mornings later and finished it.
While I had previously not read anything by Paolo Bacigalupi, I had heard interviews with him and The Windup Girl has been on my reading list for quite some time. I knew that I'd be walking into a dark story, but one that would be well-crafted.
The characters made this book for me. They are well-developed and diverse in their perspectives.
The water knife Angel, an ex-con who works for the Queen of the Colorado slicing away any water competition, may seem like the typical dumb thug for hire, but he's much more complex and intelligent than the thug stereotype. He studies people, observes them, and tries to get inside their heads. Sure, he ultimately wants to use any insights to his advantage, but he's not mindless.
I did tire of reading that he drove a Tesla, though. Every time Angel gets in his car, Bacigalupi mentions that the car is a Tesla. And Angel drives around a lot, so the word Tesla gets dropped a lot. I'm just not sure what's wrong with the word car, especially since it sounds less like an advertisement.
Lucy, the journalist, came to Phoenix to report on the city's slow downfall. Even though she has family in Canada and could leave Phoenix, she stays to capture the stories of the people, the city, and the struggle. As an outsider, it took her some time to appreciate the chaos around her, but she has adapted. Her sister begs her to leave Phoenix, but Lucy's moral compass and innate curiosity keep her rooted in Phoenix.
The last main character is a teenage girl named Maria. She's originally from Texas, but now lives in Phoenix as a water refugee. When Texas dried up, Marie's entire family died on their trek to Phoenix. Her best friend and roommate Sarah tries to convince Maria that prostitution is her ticket out. Maria wants to save money to pay a Coyote to safely see her across the state border into California, but Sarah thinks endearing herself to a rich man is a better plan for escaping refugee status.
These characters have such different backgrounds and experiences that their conversations with other characters and each other are filled with interesting perspectives on what may come. They speculate on the solo survival nature of Americans. Specifically, they talk about Americans not wanting to rely on anyone but themselves. No one in the refugee camp bands together to help anyone else. It's cut-throat. And it's an interesting point to ponder.
Another thought-provoking consideration centers around the varying viewpoints the characters have about the future. Some characters focus on what America was and they desperately want that idealized version of the past back. Other characters accept the wreckage around them and merely want to find a way to walk away from the gruesome scene. To survive. All of the main characters have a moral code that they adhere to, but those moral codes are not always in alignment. Watching how these characters make decisions about their future is eye-opening.
And the book's pacing was perfect for me. The first 100 pages were hit and miss in terms of ramping up the conflict, but once pieces of the central problem were in place, the characters just kept following leads.
I was not a fan of of the sex scenes. And what surprised me was that the sex scenes involving a teenage girl didn't bother me as much as a sex scene involving an adult woman.
The scenes involving the teenager were not graphic. They were unpleasant because the poor kid was drugged and had no idea what was going on, but the haze of drugs created a haze over the entire scene. And putting the teenager into this horrible position had a purpose. The next events could not unfold without her being precisely where she was.
Now the sex scene involving an adult woman was gratuitous. Completely. After reading a few pages of awkwardly worded sexual positions, I was wondering what the point was. Nothing in the plot depended on these two characters having sex. What bothered me more was that the woman realized that she enjoyed being strangled. Her obvious orgasmic enjoyment of being strangled was THE ending to the chapter. Okay. So that's going to mean something later on, right? Nope. At least I didn't see any connection. Not sure why that scene needed to be included.
The most offensive scenes, though, were the ones involving torture. Play-by-play torture. I was expecting the book to have a certain amount of violence. The title does include the word knife after all. And people were fighting over water rights and access. My imagination has no problem conceptualizing a world where those kinds of circumstances could get ugly quite quickly.
And there were scenes where people were hit, shot, killed. Violence. Reported out within the context of a world where stakes were high. But then there were a few scenes where the amount of detail was too much. Even in one clinical scene at a morgue, I just didn't want to read the dialogue because the character would not stop describing one gruesome act followed by another and another and another.
The ideas explored in this novel would make great book club discussions, but I know if I recommended this book to certain friends, they would read the torture descriptions and never trust me again. And I consider that such a shame. This story with such rich perspectives to explore is limited in its overall effectiveness because a few scenes cross a line.