Hum If You Don’t Know The Words is a wonderful book that gave me all the feels. It made me cry, laugh, feel angry, shocked and even hopeful. But what surprised me was that this is Bianca Marais’ debut novel. Marais uses imagery and beautiful, even poetic, language to describe South Africa’s multicultural and linguistic diversity as well as the complicated and blatantly bigoted dynamics between South Africans in the 1970’s.
I have always been an avid reader of books dealing with racism and civil rights and after reading (and loving) Trevor Noah’s book Born a Crime a couple of months ago I have become more interested in books related to apartheid. With this book, Marais sheds light on the flagrant racism and abuse of power of apartheid and also addresses other issues including homophobia, loss, grief, abandonment, bravery and the deep need we have for family connections.
Marais humanizes apartheid by showing how the Soweto Uprising on June 16, 1976 affected her two main characters. The story is narrated by two very different points of view – Beauty, a highly educated Black Xhosa single mother and teacher from the Transkei region and Robin, a 10-year-old white girl from the Johannesburg suburbs. These two are brought together after the Uprising and show two contrasting views of the effects of apartheid and the prevalent, often flippant attitude of racism as the status quo.
Both Robin and Beauty are given equal page time and are well-rounded characters but I had a much stronger connection to Beauty. She had such strength, tenacity, grace and conviction even after enduring unimaginable losses and hardship. Robin is precocious and deals with the loss of her family in her unique way but often she was used to bring humour to the story. While these lighter moments offset the more serious scenes, at times, it got to be a bit much.
I will caution readers that there were a few scenes, especially towards the end involving Robin, that will require readers to suspend belief. This is fiction, I get that, but I think that the story went a little too far past what I’d feel was plausible. That is the only part of the book that faltered for me. Otherwise, this is an outstanding read that will keep readers transfixed.
Hum If You Don’t Know The Words will hit readers in the heart, head and hopefully conscience about how we need to treat and respect others. A little compassion, respect and empathy can go a long, long way. This is a poignant and important story that shows the damaging and long-lasting effects of inequality and bigotry with heart, some humour and wonderfully vivid language.