Hum If You Don’t Know The Words is one of my current favorite debuts! In 1976 apartheid South Africa where racism was a way of life, we meet Robin, a 9 yr old white girl who was daughter to a miner and his wife. Robin’s father did not always treat blacks fairly and, tragically, both parents were murdered, leaving the little girl alone. Then we meet Beauty, a 50 year old, educated, black, single mother of 3; 2 teenage boys living with her in a small village and a daughter who had been living with a relative’s family so she could study in the city. When Beauty finds out her daughter has run away to train for the resistance and she is in danger, she travels to the city to find her.
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. Through circumstances and the kindness of Robin’s aunt, a woman at the library and the social worker, all 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 she is focused trying to bring her daughter home, but she sees the void in Robin’s life and steps in to fulfill her needs, becoming attached in her own way.
Inequality breeds strife and respect feeds strength, support and positivity. Marais does a wonderful job telling a grueling South African apartheid story while showing the beauty and resilience of all types 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. I was 9 years old in 1976 and I am 50 now so I felt a special connection with both of the main characters and appreciated their depth. Both had experienced so much in their unique lifetimes and they are fully round, and richly expressed. These powerful women roll models create unlikely friendships and develop relationships that transcend race, built on love and the need to be loved. According to the author, there is more to this story of Robin and Beauty and I am excited to see when the next book will be published.
As Seen on 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.
About the Author:
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 and their caregivers.
Originally from South Africa, she now resides in Toronto with her husband and three pets (Muggle, Mrs Norris and Wombat). Yes, she is a huge Harry Potter fan.