Book Review: Hum If You Don’t Know The Words by Bianca Marais

It had been an ordinary Sunday in every way. My parents fought and then made up and then fought again, switching from being adversaries to allies so seamlessly that you couldn’t put your finger on the moment when the lines were crossed and recrossed. Cat perfectly acted out her part of the quiet understudy twin, so I could take my place in the spotlights playing the leading role for both of us. I asked too many questions and repeatedly pushed the boundaries, and Mabel hovered like a benevolent shadow in the wings. The only difference was that, without my knowing it, the clock had started ticking; in just over three days, I’d lose three of the most important people in my life.

With profound insight and balance Hum If You Don’t Know The Words by Bianca Marais explores the world of Apartheid South Africa, the Soweto Uprising and the aftermath for one Black woman searching for her daughter and one young white girl searching for understanding and what happens when their lives become forever bound together.

“You will bring Nomsa home?” he asks and I nod because I cannot speak. “You will come back?” I nod again. “Do you promise, Mama?”“Yes.” It is a strangled sob, a fire of emotion robbed of air, but it is a promise. I will bring Nomsa home.

Beauty is a Xhosa woman who must leave her two youngest children in the care of her village as she sets out to search for her eldest daughter, Nomsa, following the receipt of a letter warning of potential danger. Hoping for the best for her children, Beauty has supported Nomsa as she shed the shackles of village life to pursue an education- a rare thing for a black girl in rural South Africa.  No longer beneath the watchful eye of her mother, Nomsa has become a part of something so much bigger than herself. Full of nerves and worry, Beauty sets out on this harrowing  journey.

My journey will take me from this rural idyll where time stands still to a city that is rocked from below its foundations by the dynamite blasts used in the mining of gold, and assaulted from above by the fierce Highveld thunderstorms that tear across its sky. Almost a thousand kilometers stretch out between here and Soweto in a thread of dread and doubt, but I try not to think of the distance as I hold my suitcase away from my body to stop it from drumming into my thigh.

Beauty arrives in Soweto to find the school deserted and she fears she is too late. Racing through town she stumbles upon a sea of children, marching peacefully in protest of the introduction of the newly required Afrikaans curriculum. Frantically searching for her daughter, she hears shots ring out and children scream. She urgently moves from child to child hoping and fearing that she finds Nomsa; all the while holding the injured, comforting them as their end approaches, brought on too soon by this injustice.

Today was a big fucking deal, Jolene. Word is they’ve never seen an uprising like this before. The blacks are getting cheekier by the day, and the government is finding it harder and harder to control them. Today will just get the rest of them riled up. Do you want to live in a country with all the kaffirs running loose, doing whatever the hell they want, feeling like they’re entitled to help themselves? Soweto is only fifty kilometers away from here. That’s nothing!”

In what may as well be another world entirely, Robin, a young white girl who spends her days in Johannesburg recreating scenes from her favorite detective series, exists with a simplicity fitting to a white child- without a care in the world bigger than what her school mates and the neighborhood children are getting up to. With her daily needs satisfied by her Black housekeeper and nanny, Mabel, Robin is unruffled by the blatant racism perpetuated by her parents. She takes each of their positions at face value not understanding the history of inequality that made it so. Her world is as she believes it should be having known no different- that is until tragedy turns her world on its head.

All I knew of death was that it was a mysterious force that came for baby birds and hamsters and people like my Ouma. Dying was what happened to the sick or the weak or the old, and my parents were none of those things; they were young and strong and healthy.

Thrown into the arms of her single, irresponsible aunt, Robin struggles to make sense of this loss within the framework of her 10-year-old mind. When circumstance brings Beauty into her life, who is still desperately in search of Nomsa, Robin begins to see that the beliefs she was indoctrinated with may not truly fit in her heart. With resentment on both sides, their relationship starts out prickly but the sharpest edges are ground away through shared experiences and the unexpected love that grows between them.

More than anything, I wished Beauty could truly understand how much the past fifteen months I’d spent with her had changed me. In the darkness of my grief, she’d taken my hand and walked with me through the crucible . She’d brought love and life and color into my world, and I’d never see things in simple black and white again. She’d helped me realize that life wasn’t the kind of story that had a happy ending. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I’d come to believe that a story that ended happily was just a story that hadn’t ended yet.

The wisdom Beauty holds, and the gentle nature of her delivery, proves to be irreplaceable to Robin whose accidental humor and precocious nature cast her as the perfect character through which we learn countless invaluable lessons. Such lessons include the significance of prejudice, the importance of acceptance and the true meaning of love, which is something that all people deserve and where no disclaimer should exist.

Through the eyes of a clever, innocent white child and a brave, tenacious Black woman, Hum If You Don’t Know The Words, presents the oppressive inequality and turmoil of the violent South African past and the resilience of its people. Executed with impressive depth and a lighthearted style, the lessons found within will stay with you long after the last page is read.

I didn’t know then what the future would hold. I didn’t know that the story Beauty and I shared was far from over, nor did I know that the winding paths our lives would take—mine and Beauty’s and Nomsa’s—would go on to become so entangled that all these years later, I’m finding it impossible to pick apart the knots to separate them. But that’s another story for another time.

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A review copy of this title was provided by G.P. Putnam Sons and Netgalley

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