A rous­ing quest for re­demp­tion

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - RAYYAN AL-SHAWAF Spe­cial to the Toronto Star

“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.

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