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.
“I didn’t know what to say in a world where people were hated and attacked for not being the right color, not speaking the right language, not worshipping the right god or not loving the right people; a world where hatred was the common language, and bricks, the only words.”
Bianca Marais, Hum If You Don’t Know the Words
Hum If You Don’t Know the Words is beautifully written and will stay with me for a long time. In this debut novel, Marais addresses race, class, and loss in apartheid-era South Africa in the 70s. The novel took me on an emotional and (at times) heartbreaking journey. However, it also made me smile along the way. Nine-year-old Robin is not your typical kid. She is articulate, perceptive and also quite the snoop. Growing up, Robin has been taught blacks are inferior and “bad” people. She knows bad black men were responsible for the brutal murder of her parents. Thankfully, Beauty shows up and proves otherwise. Beauty provides the love, patience, and attention Robin has been seeking all of her young life. Although the book’s main point is mostly about Beauty and Robin’s lives, don’t get it twisted, it also shows how life in apartheid South Africa created a destructive and extremely harsh life for black Africans. This is the first novel I have read about South Africa and apartheid, but it will definitely not be my last. If you would like to get an inkling about life in South Africa in the 70s, I highly recommend this impressive and well-written novel. Oh, and once you read it, you’ll understand the meaning of the owl and parrot on the cover. 🙂
Thank you to Edelweiss and G.P. Putnam’s Sons for an arc of the book in exchange for an honest review. It was an honor!