Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Hum If You Don't Know the Words by Bianca Marais

I loved this first novel by Bianca Marais.  It was well written, easy to read, depicted complex but relatable characters and shone a light on a dark period in South Africa's history.

Robin Conrad is a 9 year old white girl living in 1970s Johannesburg with her parents.  Though her father works in the mines, he serves in a managerial capacity, receiving both the salary and the treatment commensurate with that position.  The family treats their maid, Mabel, in accordance with the standard of the day - she lives in a shack at the back of the property, must use her own utensils, must be available at all times (with no overtime), takes orders from a 9 year old and, if required to stay late at night to babysit, must sleep on the floor.

Robin is a tomboy who takes after her father and baffles her mother.  She chases after the neighbourhood boys trying to join their gang and works hard not to cry since her mother said crying makes her look ugly.

In the same country, but worlds away, Beauty lives in a rural village in the black Bantu homeland of Transkei.  She is an educated teacher struggling to raise her three children after the death of her husband in the mines.  Through Beauty we learn how different the mining experience is for black workers from the experience of Robin's father.  Beauty's daughter, Nomsa, has moved to Johannesburg to continue her schooling and Beauty receives an urgent letter from her brother saying Nomsa is in trouble and she must come.  Beauty leaves her two sons in the care of the villagers and makes the long and difficult trek to Soweto.

When Beauty arrives in Soweto high school children have begun a march protesting their treatment which quickly turns violent when the South African police and army arrives.  And Nomsa is nowhere to be found.

On the night of the Soweto Uprising, Robin's parents attend a mine event and are murdered by black workers.  There is no official evidence the killing was targeted but as Robin discovers more about how her father treated black people she wonders whether he was in fact sought out.

Robin is sent to live with her aunt, Edith, a single, childless flight attendant who is loving but has absolutely no idea how to care for a child.  Just when Edith hits rock bottom and there is a risk child services will take Robin away, a white activist meets Robin at the library and, knowing Beauty needs a job to stay in Johannesburg and look for Nomsa, sends Beauty to care for Robin,  At first Robin is very skeptical of the arrangement - she is horrified Beauty uses the same dishes and sleeps in the aunt's bed while her aunt is away.  But she eventually comes to realize Beauty is not dirty and does not carry germs.

Slowly Beauty and Robin bond and each helps the other deal with their grief.  The relationship between them, and Robin's developing awareness of the unfairness of apartheid as a result, makes for a wonderful read.  There are also many other engaging characters - Edith, despite her flaws, her gay friend Victor (who is also persecuted for being different), their Jewish neighbours, the Goldmans, and the alcoholic, "coloured" superintendent, King George.

Marais does an amazing job of expressing the world from the eyes of a 9 year old whose world is shattered and, with it, the assumptions she was raised on.  The chapters from Beauty's perspective are equally well written.  I highly recommend this book.

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