Friday, April 26, 2019

Fiction Review: Hum If You Don't Know the Words

Bianca Marais, author of the novel Hum If You Don't Know the Words, was one of the featured authors at Booktopia 2018, a wonderful weekend book event held every May that I attend whenever I can, but I didn't have time to read her book before last year's gathering. I was thrilled to hear she'll be making a rare second appearance at Booktopia 2019 (click on Events) next week, so I finally read her stunning, powerful, funny novel while stuck in airports and very uncomfortable airplanes last week - it was the perfect distraction.

In 1977 Johannesburg, 9-year old Robin, a white girl, lives with her parents in a suburb populated by mining families; her father is a supervisor in the local mine. A long way from there, in the mountainous region known as the Transkei, a 50-ish Xhosa woman named Beauty lives a satisfying life with her children in a dirt-floor hut. It is just her two sons at home now, as Beauty allowed her smart and determined teen daughter, Nomsa, to attend high school in Johannesburg. But she has just received an urgent letter from her brother that he fears Nomsa is in trouble, so Beauty packs a small bag, changes into "city clothes," and begins the multi-day journey. Things are worse than she imagined when she arrives in the city to find a huge student-led protest, later known as the Soweto Uprising, being held that day, with her daughter as one of the leaders. Beauty somehow survives that horrible, bloody conflict intact, but Nomsa is missing. That same violent day ends with Robin's parents being brutally murdered while at a neighborhood party. Robin is left devastated and mostly alone, with only her aunt to care for her, who is rarely home due to her job as a flight attendant. Desperately searching for Nomsa, Beauty takes on the job of caring for Robin so she can legally stay in the city with proper papers. The two isolated, damaged people slowly bond, as Robin begins to heal with Beauty's help. Robin worries, though, about what will happen to her if Beauty finally finds her daughter.

I was blown away by this moving, powerful novel about love and loss set during a turbulent, often horrifying time in South Africa's history. The racial inequities are stunning, especially when contrasted with the affection and love that Robin and Beauty begin to feel for each other, and Beauty's attempts to help Robin understand the world they live in. This novel took me on an emotional rollercoaster ride, punching me in the gut with its wrenching, shocking losses, and alternately making me laugh out loud. Chapters alternate between Robin's and Beauty's perspectives, and Robin's childish understanding of the adult world is often hilarious (plus, there's a talking parrot named Elvis). I loved every moment of this unique and exquisite novel, and loved both Robin and Beauty as well. It's the kind of novel that you finish and just hold to your chest, sighing in satisfaction and wishing you could read it all over again for the first time.

415 pages, G.P. Putnam's Sons

Listen to a sample of the audio book, which sounds wonderful!

You can purchase Hum If You Don't Know the Words from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
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  1. Sounds very emotional apart from the very factual inequalities.

    1. It was very emotional - both downs and ups!

  2. This sounds fantastic! The Soweto Uprising is a pivotal moment in South Africa's modern history so what a great idea to use it as a turning point for these characters.

    1. It was fascinating (and horrifying) to read about, Helen. And, yes, a clever way to bring the two very different characters together.