About the book: (from the publisher) Life under Apartheid has created a secure future for Robin Conrad, a ten-year-old white girl living with her parents in 1970s 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.
About the author: Bianca Marais holds a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, and her work has been published in World Enough and Crime. Before turning to writing, she started a corporate training company, and volunteered with Cotlands where she assisted care workers in Soweto with providing aid for HIV/AIDS orphans. Originally from South Africa, she now resides in Toronto with her husband.
Genre: Fiction/General/Book ClubCaptivating coming-of-age novel from fresh literary voice @BiancaM_Author #unputdownable Click To Tweet
My take: I could not put down Bianca Marais’s enthralling debut. In the midst of a particularly busy week, I made time to read it, it so captivated me. Hum If You Don’t Know the Words offers a masterful rendering of stunning beauty found amidst terrible brokenness. While unabashed in its descriptions of the stark brutality of the time and place, it’s also bold in its celebration of the resiliency of the human spirit, the triumphant power of love. Brimming with hope, this coming-of-age story has secured its place at the top of my short list of highly recommended reads.
I found Bianca Marais’s vibrant narrative equally compelling as the voice of both Beauty and Robin. Together, their voices blend into a poignant song that is both emotionally powerful and socially important. In recent years, I’ve read several novels set in 20th-century South Africa; this one far and away earns my greatest appreciation. I would particularly recommend it for books clubs and readers of The Secret Life of Bees and The Help.
If you read one book about racism in South Africa this year, let it be this one. I can’t recommend it enough.
Just so you know: Some profanity and mature themes
Thanks to G.P. Putnam’s Sons for providing me this book free of charge. All opinions are mine.
After words: At the end of this novel, the author hinted at a sequel. Fingers crossed it’s not long in coming. What favorite book have you read lately that deserves a Part Two?