Joe Simpson’s The Water People is the story of childhood friends, Chris and Jimmy, who set off into the Indian Himalaya partly for the adventure of climbing mountains, partly because of Jimmy’s search for the “water people.” These are creatures of folklore, more real than imagination but still intangible. They are the spirits, you could say, that dwell in all water bodies, from rain to rivers to glaciers and snow, and can move between them all, wherever they meet. Chris, the narrator, is skeptical of their existence.
A large chunk of the novel passes, however, before Chris and Jimmy even arrive in India, and much more before they reach the mountains. This enables the author to set up the characters’ personalities and their relationship with each other in complex ways: Chris is slightly uptight and generally skeptical and fearful of the unknown. Jimmy is more open-minded, but also pretty irresponsible and annoying. Chris’s ‘secret’ relationship with Jimmy’s younger sister is symbolic of how well, and how little, the two young men know each other.
There are many beautiful and poignant parts of The Water People, but overall it felt as though the author was trying to do too much. There were too many different locations entered, too many personal anxieties explored, too many complicated relationships entered into, for a relatively short book. The love and tension between Jimmy and Chris underpins the climactic tragedy, and it was necessary for these to be articulated in a slow and sustained manner. But in the end it felt disjointed.
Furthermore, Simpson’s skills lie in describing the natural environment rather than the built, human-inhabited one. Chris’s impressions of Delhi are described in the cliched terms that make me cringe. He writes well in many ways, but the imagery is so stale. Describing Old Delhi:
“At the back of the mosque I found a bazaar laid out in the pattern of a Mogul garden and pathways lined in sandstone, and fountains by terraces and every imaginable type of stall staffed by dark-bearded Pathans–soothsayers and snake charmers, hawkers and beggars. I bought sweet milked tea in a thick chipped glass and sat resting on sun-browned grass watching the Hakims sell their wares. The midday sun hung in a cloudless sky directly above the domes of the mosque. It was refreshingly cool in the open esplanade of the park, free from the stifling claustrophobia of Chandni Chowk. I had learnt that in the past caged cheetah, greyhounds, hooded hunting leopards and Persian cats had been sold in those darkened lanes. They were gone now, replaced with the plastic squalor of consumer goods but the fervent desperation of the sellers was no doubt the same.” (p. 75)
Everything and nothing changes in India, looking back to the past…
At the heart of Jimmy’s search for the Water People is what could be considered a cliched desire of a young British man searching for an alternative way of understanding his place and his world through the ‘east’. But this desire largely comes across as sincere in The Water People, :
“There are countless myths and legends associated with the mountainous regions of this planet. Fantastic tales, mysteries, archetypal stories imbued with fear and awe. I have heard many of these legends and have begun to recognise a common theme running through them all. The stories, like poorly fitting clothes, hide what lies beneath. The people from whom I have heard these stories have good reason to believe them. Fear and ignorance might account for most of the fantasy that embroiders the tales but these people are blessed with open uncluttered minds that are prepared to acknowledge the truth in them. We can believe in Christianity. Some of us can blindly accept transubstantiation–that wine becomes the blood of Christ and a sliver of bread becomes his flesh when consecrated in Eucharist. Yet we will laugh at the myths and legends of other cultures. We laugh with the amused, conceited arrogance of fools unable to recognise that our own truths are equally unfounded.” (p. 123)
This is all true, but it is not fresh. Simpson succeeds in detaching himself somewhat from these sentiments, however, by making Jimmy an inherently naive character. Chris’ world-weariness also reflects a similar naivete, and it is in this that The Water People holds is charm.