HUM IF YOU DON'T KNOW THE WORDS by Bianca Marais

HUM IF YOU DON'T KNOW THE WORDS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The paths of a young white girl and a black woman intersect when the violence of apartheid shatters both their lives.

Set in Johannesburg, Marais’ debut novel centers on Beauty Mbali and 9-year-old Robin Conrad, each of whom is impacted by the 1976 Soweto Uprising, in which white police officers opened fire on peacefully protesting black schoolchildren. Robin’s parents are killed in the backlash, while Beauty’s daughter, Nomsa, goes missing from her Soweto school after taking part in the uprising. Beauty’s search for Nomsa leads her to Robin’s aunt, who hires Beauty as a caretaker for Robin so she can remain in the city and continue her quest to find her daughter. Because Robin is a child who has suffered traumatic loss (rendered in poignant, vivid detail), it's hard to feel anything but sympathy for her even when her selfish decisions have grave consequences for her beloved Beauty. While the novel goes to admirable lengths to treat every member of its diverse supporting cast with complexity through copious dialogue and at least a hint of a back story for each, the characters can feel like types (the liberated single career woman, the liberal Jewish family, the kindly gay best friend, the helpful mixed-race janitor) meant to give proof of the novel's pro-equality intentions. Moreover, Robin’s declarations about racism (“it’s easier to treat people terribly if you tell yourself they’re nothing like you”) are at once too sophisticated for a child and too simplistic to be the novel’s main message. To the novel’s credit, the double point of view structure adds nuance and depth to the twice-told scenes, and the story never fails to create a sense of urgency at every narrative development. Apart from her occasional philosophizing, Robin's character is a refreshingly accurate and often downright hilarious portrayal of girlhood.

An entertaining page-turner that, while somewhat pat in its treatment of racial politics, provides a satisfying emotional journey.

Pub Date: July 11th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-399-57506-8
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: Putnam
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2017




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