There is something masterful about Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, from the creative title, and its complicated characters, to the intricate plot. Marais takes you on an emotional journey that is not only moving and entertaining, but also takes up issues of racism and progress.
It is the 1970s. South Africa. And Apartheid’s laws, based on fear and racism, are turning the Johannesberg into a simmering cauldron of tension. When the pot boils over, two people: Robin and Beauty are caught in the cross fire. Robin’s white parents are killed while attending dinner and Beauty’s daughter goes missing during a student protest. As Robin attempts to deal with her grief and Beauty searches for her child, their paths intertwine in a series of unintended dominoes, when Beauty becomes Robin’s caretaker. The bond between them, while turbulent at times, is strong and exists beyond words and skin colors: an orphan searching for a parental figure, and a mother without a daughter. But as the threat of losing Beauty looms, Robin makes a series of decisions that she will need to untangle herself, and lead to far reaching consequences for those around her.
It is so difficult to put this book into a one paragraph synopsis, because there’s so much more I want to say. Marais does a fantastic job of taking the time with the plot, sprinkling it with characters, and memories. There is nothing rushed about this story, and it needs the space to grow. Not only does it deal with two complex characters, a ten year old girl, and a fierce mother, but it gets down to the very heart of racism.
Having read a few post-apartheid books, for my degree, I was more familiar with the ramifications, the fall out of the prejudice driven laws. But this book puts everything into perspective from a variety of angles, from the rural villages, to the ghettoes of the city, to the treatment of other minorities. In that, this book provides a much more comprehensive picture of racism within the streets.
Beauty and Robin, told through alternating perspectives, are at the heart of this book and this perspective is essential to the meaning of the story. Coming from two different worlds within the same country, for Robin especially, it is a learning experience. As a child, she only absorbs what she sees, and mimics behaviors and opinions. Beauty’s presence in her life teaches us that nurture is stronger than nature. Her transformation is one of my favorite parts of the book, even if it made me cringe sometimes. Writing a child protagonist is always a unique challenge and Marais wonderfully balances Robin’s innocence, her wisdom, and her childishness. At times she is wise, other times innocence of the hatred of the world, and other times selfish.
She has her imaginary sister, whom she places the monumental weight of grief upon, to take solace in the imaginary. Her journey is multi-faceted, more intricate than the straightforward path between her home in the white part of town, to her aunt’s apartment. It reminds us that all these steps in our own story move us in mysterious ways towards events that will change us forever.
They are two stories, united by violence of the same coin. This story, this important narrative, asks us how we envision the future, how do we reach this vision? If the Apartheid system breeds hate, what can the solution be? There are many beautiful parts of this book: the origin of Beauty’s name, Robin’s imaginary sister, and the transformation of Edith, Robin’s Aunt. But delving any deeper would result in writing my own book just talking about them, their importance, and my feelings. Trust me, when I suggest you just have to read it for yourself. That way you too can witness the way that Beauty changes our lives, dispels our hatred, and nurtures our love.
Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for an honest review from First to Read.
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