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Water, Inc.

by Varda Burstyn

Bourne-like, some thrillers deliver lots of action but very little plausibility – we love the suspense, but never quite believe that we’ll be encountering amnesiac special agents or colourful computer hackers anytime soon. Other thrillers are both gripping and believable. But only a very, very few novels in the secrets-and-pursuit genre succeed as thrillers and are well written to boot. Now along comes a new, major thriller by a Canadian, which is remarkable in itself – interestingly, this country rarely does thrillers. The suspense is killing us: could we be looking at the first truly great northern thriller?

Varda Burstyn has built her story on the scariest question on the global warming agenda: given a future of increasingly tapped-out and polluted sources of water, how will the West cope? More to the point, how will the U.S. government satisfy a parched, greedy population of free-marketers who won’t or can’t cut down on resource consumption? Water, Inc. is a cautionary tale about this country’s vulnerability – it shows us exactly why Uncle Sam’s cant phrase “Canada is our friend and neighbour” has never sounded so chilling.

The book starts near Lac St. Jean, Quebec, where land is cheap and, as an immensely powerful American entrepreneur named William Greele discovers, there are any number of ways to get a pipeline going to New York state. To pull off one of the biggest privatization projects of the century, Greele forms a consortium, a perfectly legal and exquisitely immoral group of bankers, contractors, oil people, and biotech firms. As the assiduous Burstyn makes dishearteningly clear, Greele’s consortium rarely has to dupe or exploit the key rainmakers neccessary for such a project – the White House, the law, the media, and the military – they just have to ask. Meanwhile, in Canada, the pipeline project plays into the hands of the sovereignists, who see it as a chance to establish control over Quebec resources.

Eventually a resistance emerges, a motley group of conscience-stricken corporate employees and assorted environmentalists. The novel climaxes with the murder of a whistleblower, followed by a white-knuckle chase that becomes everybody’s box-office favourite, the race against time.

Even by the standards of the genre, the book’s heroes and villains are TV-like in their flimsiness. Greele is given clichéd reasons for his bad behaviour – he’s an alpha male courting a stroke, and his dad didn’t love him. Dismally, the heroine is depicted as an academic earth mother, with “abundant curves” and “dark, wavy hair” whose authenticity is signalled by the fact that her “strong hands” eschew nail polish. The love scenes are downright odd, featuring sentences such as “Her curves sang to him and her red sandals winked at him.” Worse, Burstyn gives her heroes too-cogent speeches that read like magazine articles about the effects of climate change and the dangers of turbo-capitalism.

But the novel is redeemed, mightily, by sheer dint of research. Burstyn knows exactly what – and who – it would take to marshal a takeover of Canada’s resources. Every foot soldier of corruption is here, every misguided treaty, pressurized PM, unaccountable corporation, out-of-touch bureaucrat, righteous CEO, partisan news corporation, and unheeding, powerless member of the public. Water, Inc. describes how we could get swept away – by many streams that make up a torrent.