Thursday, 27 July 2017

Hum If You Don't Know The Words

Author: Bianca Marais
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Setting: South Africa
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 420
Source: Publisher
Publisher: G.P Putnam Books
First Published: July 11, 2017
First Line: "I joined up the last two lines of the hopscotch grid and wrote a big "10" in the top square."

Book Description from GoodReadsPerfect for readers of The Secret Life of Bees and The Help, a perceptive and searing look at Apartheid-era South Africa, told through one unique family brought together by tragedy.

Life under Apartheid has created a secure future for Robin Conrad, a nine-year-old white girl living with her parents in 1970's Johannesburg. In the same nation but worlds apart, Beauty Mbali, a Xhosa woman in a rural village in the Bantu homeland of the Transkei, struggles to raise her children alone after her husband's death. Both lives have been built upon the division of race, and their meeting should never have occurred . . . until the Soweto Uprising, in which a protest by black students ignites racial conflict, alters the fault lines on which their society is built, and shatters their worlds when Robin’s parents are left dead and Beauty’s daughter goes missing.

After Robin is sent to live with her loving but irresponsible aunt, Beauty is hired to care for Robin while continuing the search for her daughter. In Beauty, Robin finds the security and family that she craves, and the two forge an inextricable bond through their deep personal losses. But Robin knows that if Beauty finds her daughter, Robin could lose her new caretaker forever, so she makes a desperate decision with devastating consequences. Her quest to make amends and find redemption is a journey of self-discovery in which she learns the harsh truths of the society that once promised her protection.

Told through Beauty and Robin's alternating perspectives, the interwoven narratives create a rich and complex tapestry of the emotions and tensions at the heart of Apartheid-era South Africa. Hum if You Don’t Know the Words is a beautifully rendered look at loss, racism, and the creation of family.
 


Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to G.P Putnam for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.


My Rating: 4 stars

My Review: Hum If You Don't Know The Words is a wonderful book that gave me all the feels. It made me cry, laugh, angry, shocked and even hopeful. But what surprised me was that this is Bianca Marais' debut novel. Marais uses imagery and beautiful, even poetic, language to describe South Africa's multicultural and linguistic diversity as well as the complicated and blatantly bigoted dynamics between South Africans in the 1970's. 

I have always been an avid reader of books dealing with racism and civil rights and after reading (and loving) Trevor Noah's book Born a Crime a couple of months ago I have become more interested in books related to Apartheid. With this book, Marais sheds light on the flagrant racism and abuse of power of Apartheid and also addresses other issues including homophobia, loss, grief, abandonment, bravery and the deep need we have for family connections.


Marais humanizes Apartheid by showing how the Soweto Uprising on June 16, 1976 affected her two main characters. The story is narrated by two very different points of view - Beauty, a highly educated Black Xhosa single mother and teacher from the Transkei region and Robin, a 10-year-old white girl from the Johannesburg suburbs. These two are brought together after the Uprising and show two contrasting views of the effects of Apartheid and the prevalent, often flippant attitude of racism as the status quo.


Both Robin and Beauty are given equal page time and are well-rounded characters but I had a much stronger connection to Beauty.  She had such strength, tenacity, grace and conviction even after enduring unimaginable losses and hardship. Robin is precocious and deals with the loss of her family in her unique way. She was often used to bring some humour to the story. While these lighter moments offset the more serious scenes, at times, it got to be a bit much.

I will caution readers that there were a few scenes, especially towards the end involving Robin, that will require readers to suspend belief. This is fiction, I get that, but I think that the story went a little too far past what I'd feel was plausible. That is the only part of the book that faltered for me. Otherwise, this is an outstanding read that will keep readers transfixed. 


Hum If You Don't Know The Words will hit readers in the heart, head and hopefully conscience about how we need to treat and respect others. A little compassion, respect and empathy can go a long, long way. This is a poignant and important story that shows the damaging and long-lasting effects of inequality and bigotry with heart, some humour and wonderfully vivid language.


Recommended.  

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