Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais

28264701Title: Hum If You Don’t Know the Words

Author: Bianca Marais

Pub Date:  July 11th, 2017

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

View on Goodreads

Buy on Book Depository | Wordery

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Perfect 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 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.

I have many, many books on my Kindle, so many that it makes me sad that I just don’t have time to read them all. So when it comes time to pick a new book to read I choose them at random, if something catches my attention, or if I heard a lot about the book, and I have it on my Kindle – I’ll read it. What made me read this book? The title – Hum If You Don’t Know the Words seems so intriguing and promises a good emotional story.

Hum If You Don’t Know the Words is a complex story of emotions and change. It’s told from two completely different perspectives – first, we have Robin, she’s a white tween coming from a well-to-do family. Second, we have Beauty, a widowed Xhosa women from a rural part of the South Africa, mother to three children. Both perspectives give us peek into the state of the world at the time – Apartheid era in South Africa’s history.

Life of Robin and Beauty cross at traumatic times for the girl, the women and the country. Beauty comes to Johannesburg to find her daughter, who is said to be in a danger. She finds herself in the middle of Soweto Uprising. Robin lost her parents as a backlash of the uprising. Beauty becomes Robin caretaker, when girl’s aunt is out, working as a flight attendant.  Robin and Beauty’s relationship has a rough start, Robin was brought up in an environment that was alienating black people, she’s seen how disrespectful her parents were to black people that worked for them. So she carried this disrespect to her relationship with Beauty. It is somehow understandable that she acts like she does, and given the loss of her parents, I was feeling sympathetic towards her. However, Robin is just a girl, and her actions often are very selfish. And sometimes too adult-ish for her age, which was bothering me while reading the book.

I much preferred Beauty’s chapters. She went through a lot in her life, but she remains a strong woman. Characters like her are always most compelling to me, the ones that show us how to deal with difficulties and persevere. Her chapters are thoughtful and strong.

The story is tackling an issue of racism, it’s taking place during the Apartheid, and two main characters are a white girl and a black woman. There is a surprisingly very diverse cast of supporting characters, that are just a bit too much of stereotypes. But I admire the effort of portraying them in a thoughtful way, not just as a “diverse background”.

Overall, it is a good story. I’d recommend it for a book club, there is potential for lively discussions.

One thought on “Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais

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