‘Hum If You Don’t Know the Words’ by Bianca Marais

The dedication to this novel of South Africa, drew me in immediately and hinted at the beautiful perspective in this work of fiction:

“For Maurna, my beloved Old Duck, and for Eunice, Puleng and Nomthandazo who taught me that even though human beings can be segregated, their hearts cannot because love is colour-blind and can walk through walls.”

The Soweto Uprising of 1976 leaves both Robin, a young white girl, and Beauty, an Xhosa teacher, grieving unimaginable loss. Their parallel interwoven narratives tell the story of racial conflict and the emotions and tensions at the heart of apartheid-era South Africa. In the aftermath of tragedy, Beauty comes to care for Robin and the two forge a bond through deep personal losses. But Robin knows that if Beauty reunites with her daughter, Robin could lose her new caretaker forever, and that is something she cannot bear. She makes a desperate decision with devastating consequences. Readers who enjoyed The Help and The Secret Life of Bees, might like this one as well.

Good character development and an authentic knowledge of the country of South Africa are strengths of this novel which is highly readable and has, in my opinion, been left wide open for a sequel. Bianca Marais studied at the University of Toronto and now lives in that city, but is originally from South Africa and has done volunteer work in Soweto.

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