Hum If You Don’t Know the Words is one of my favorite debut novels in the last year. Bianca Marais has created a rich story line that is unique in how the well developed characters navigate very sensitive issues of the time: racism and apartheid in South Africa.
In 1976, racism and apartheid was a way of life in South Africa. Here, we meet Robin, a nine-year-old white girl, the daughter of a miner and his wife. Robin’s father did not always treat black South Africans fairly and, tragically, he and his wife were murdered, leaving their daughter alone. Young Robin exhibits incredible coping skills she has developed since she was a baby and despite the culture of the country’s environment and being left without her beloved family, she has an open mind looking to receive love and wholeheartedly willing to give.
Beauty, a 50-year-old, educated, black, single mother of three 2 lives in a small village with her sons while her daughter is living with relatives to pursue her studies in the city. When she learns her daughter has run away to train with the resistance and may be in danger, Beauty travels to the city to find her.
Through circumstances and the kindness of Robin’s aunt, a woman at the library and the social worker on the case, we come to find that anything is possible. As strong, independent women with good intentions and love and acceptance in their hearts, two unlikely South Africans’ lives become intertwined; Robin and Beauty come to rely on each other. Family is everything to Beauty and though focused trying to bring her daughter home, she’s still able to see the void in Robin’s life and steps in to fulfill her needs, becoming attached in her own way.
In Hum If You Don’t Know The Words, inequality breeds strife, but respect fuels strength, support, and positivity between two women from very different backgrounds. Marais does a wonderful job telling a grueling South African apartheid story while showing the beauty and resilience of of women and the way they connect to help each other survive.
I loved Bianca Marais’s writing and the structure of this phenomenal debut book; chapters have alternating narrators with dates and locations to keep the chronology clear. Like Robin, I was nine in 1976 and, like Beauty, I am 50 now so I felt a special connection with both characters and appreciated their depth. Each had experienced so much in their unique lifetimes and they are fully round, and richly expressed. These powerful women create unlikely friendships and develop relationships that transcend race, are built on love and the need to be loved in return. According to the author, there is more to this story of Robin and Beauty and I am excited to see where the next book will lead them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bianca Marais holds a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto’s SCS, 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.
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