Book Review: ‘Hum If You Don’t Know The Words’ Is Powerful And Poignant

Review by Adrina Palmer

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.

Bianca Marais takes us back in time to the world of hate and miscommunication in South Africa circa 1976. The segregation is tangible in this heartbreaking novel about the pain caused by intolerance and superiority. ‘Hum if You Don’t Know the Words’ beautifully displays the emotions and mistakes that force people into decisions during the culmination of a civil uprising hell-bent on human destruction. Marais has some experience in the anguish lived out in the pages of her books as a native to South Africa before moving to Toronto.

Books always entertain me. Books often make me laugh. Books rarely make me cry, and yet this book created a torrential downpour, which you will understand when you find out why young Robin has an imaginary sister and the strict rules her mother places on her tiny shoulders. First, you need to understand Robin. Robin is a Daddy’s girl. He calls her freckles, and their bond is solid unlike the tenuous relationship with her mother, Jolene. Crying is for babies not little girls who are about to be in double digits. Black servants are not supposed to use the same cutlery or dishes as their white masters. Even with the thin chain linking Robin to her mother Jolene, the child wants nothing more than to make a good impression on the woman she spends her days with.

Then comes tragedy. Two officers show up to cart Robin and her black maid, Mabel, to the police station. Robin’s parents are dead, their prejudiced lifestyle coming back to bite them. Edith, Robin’s maternal aunt, leaves her job as an air hostess to care for her orphaned niece. With her normal lifestyle left in the dust, unattached world explorer Edith spirals quickly into a depression leaving her niece to her own devices in the tiny one bedroom apartment they share. Social services begin creeping into their personal space and Edith is forced find help caring for her precocious niece.

Not far away, Beauty Mbali is searching for her only daughter. The race wars have convinced her eighteen-year-old daughter, Nomsa, that she is necessary for the fight to stop the apartheid system destroying the country. Beauty leaves her fatherless, teenage sons at home to travel to the city of Soweto in search for her daughter. She finds a daunting trail of blood but no Nomsa. She seeks refuge and help from Maggie, a local white woman against the abuse of those with darker skin. The local cops catch on to Maggie’s scheme in the resistance and poke their nose into her home. Beauty must leave for her safety and is forced to become a nanny despite her job as a teacher back home.

Beauty and Robin now share the same space in their worlds. Robin, reluctant to accept another person she could lose in her life, tries to be difficult for the ever patient Beauty but fails as Beauty is stronger in experience. The two bond with many hours together as Edith is gone for weeks at a time on flights spanning the globe. They forge the barriers of race and age becoming like grandmother and granddaughter, soothing the scars of life in an unlikely friendship.

Whenever possible, Beauty returns to her sons, to where her heart belongs, but her heart will not release its hold on her daughter. The search continues despite threats and locked doors every where she turns. Her hours are preoccupied with phone calls, clandestine meetings, and tending to Robin. The youngster fills her days with school, her invisible sister, her grief, and her best friend, Jewish Morrie, another victim of the racial intolerance in the country. Secrets soon separate the oddball duo as Robin begins to spy on the woman she has come to love. Beauty cannot leave her too, along with her parents and the aunt who abandons her too frequently for a real relationship to form. The concealed truths soon become an issue too great to bear, and the relationship between Robin and Beauty is left broken and possibly irreparable.

Beauty is a character so strong her chin tilted toward the sky is almost painted on every page. She will not give up on life. She will not release her daughter into the depths of war and innocence. She will not let the world conquer her or claim her defeat. When Beauty is on the pages, she thrives with a palpable presence. Her love so knowable to every mother. Robin is harder to appreciate. Her presence is marred by her pain and her inability to find security. Her childish nature, bent towards selfish inclinations, is painful to read with those years so far gone from my own life. Something about the way the child copes with her loss and fails to find her on grace spars too harshly with the resilience of Beauty. Robin is only difficult to read because her pain is so raw and exposed, and her ability to express her thoughts so affected by her age, the process is painful to witness.

Marais captures each individual and each mistake with precision and care. The only issue with the telling of this story was the slow pace to propel Robin and Beauty onto the same page. The back story is necessary, but the meeting could have been sooner and intensified. The side characters add heart to the story. Trust me, heart is necessary when reading about a place and time so complacent to prejudice and shame. Reading of the mistreatment of humans is heart-wrenching and downright painful. Every issue of discrimination in the news now, from racism to homosexuality, to Jewish hatred, is covered in this novel with an acuteness demonstrative of the time. Marais feeds her audience food for thought and an appreciation for the progress made while highlighting the necessity to move forward still and not regress into a despaired culture harmful to every human worldwide.

Now available in book stores


James McDonald
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