A rousing quest for redemption
“Hum If You Don’t Know the Words,” the title of a delightful yet deadly serious novel by Bianca Marais, is also a metaphor for how Robin, a white girl in apartheid South Africa who co-narrates with an educated black maid named Beauty, muddles through a fraught childhood.
In 1976, when Robin is 9 years old and oblivious to life outside her Johannesburg suburb, her parents are murdered for the colour of their skin. The perpetrators are black men enraged by the police’s gunning down of at least 176 protesting black schoolchildren in the now-famous Soweto uprising.
Marais, who is white, lives in Toronto, but was born and raised in South Africa. She manages to capture, sometimes simultaneously, the abominable nature of apartheid and the racial/cultural complexity of her homeland, as when Robin discovers that some people are neither white nor black. “If people didn’t come in the right colours, how would we know who to be scared of ?”she asks.
Of course, Marais isn’t the first white South African writer to do this. And highlighting the absurdity of what purportedly sophisticated grown-ups have wrought by presenting it through the eyes of a mystified child is hardly original.
Robin initially seems like the heroine of a young adult novel. Marais even has her grapple with forms of bias other than anti-black racism, such as homophobia and anti-Semitism, in a heavy-handed attempt to illustrate their commonalities.
Yet two story elements steer “Hum If You Don’t Know the Words” away from the predictable and the pedagogic. The first assumes the form of Beauty, a black character who — in contrast to Robin — narrates her chapters in the present tense, imbuing them with immediacy.
In Johannesburg, Beauty becomes nanny and surrogate mother to Robin. Beauty’s concern is finding her 19-year-old daughter Nomsa, who was living with her uncle in nearby Soweto but has gone missing. Meanwhile, Robin cannot bear to be separated from Beauty, even for the sake of Nomsa. So she makes a selfish, shocking and fateful decision. And in the process, the author turns “Hum If You Don’t Know the Words” into a brave girl’s rousing quest for redemption.
Bianca Marais, author of Hum If You Don’t Know The Words, G.P. Putnam’s Sons.