Hum If You Don’t Know the Words – Review

Heartbreaking and tragic. Powerful and poetic. It will be a long, long time before this book leaves me.

I went into this book a little blind. As my TBR piled up, I simply made a list of which reviews were due and dove in. The title didn’t reveal much so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

What I got was an incredible story about love and the resilience of life.

I will admit that I probably would have been intimidated at the prospect of reading a book about Apartheid South Africa. This is a heavy subject matter. And it shouldn’t be trivialized or glamorized. Perhaps the uncertainty of reading a book about a time and a place I don’t know much about would have scared me, made me reach for something a little more in my comfort zone. But I am so glad I didn’t. This book is overwhelming in its beauty.

This book alternates between the narrative of Robin, a young white girl living in a Johannesburg South Africa in the 1970’s, and of Beauty, an Xhosa woman desperate to find her daughter after she has gone missing after an uprising.

Robin’s parents are killed the same night Beauty’s daughter goes missing, leaving her in the care of her well-intentioned aunt. Edith never wanted children and can’t fathom changing her glamorous career as an international air stewardess to care for a child. Beauty’s desire to stay in Johannesburg and search for her daughter coincides with Edith’s need for a caregiver, bringing Robin and Beauty together.

The most heartbreaking thing about this novel is how it deals with racism. Systemic, inherent racism where children are taught to hate another group of people simply for the color of their skin. It is hard to read. And heartbreaking because simple observations through the eyes of a child show how hate is taught, how it is learned.

“If people didn’t come in the right colors, how would we know who to be scared of?”

Both Beauty and Robin make such profound observations about life, and love, and power, so frequently they are shocking in their simplicity. Marais has an extraordinary talent in her ability to weave these thoughts together in a soft and subtle way. But like water, they are only soft and subtle in the right order. They can also be as hard and unmoving as a wall, hitting you with blunt force instead of washing over and around you.

Beauty becomes a mother and grandmother to Robin, intertwined in a complicated relationship. She must keep many things about their relationship and living arrangements a secret, which is a large burden for an already burdened 9 year old.

Both Beauty and Robin find solace with each other, and love with each other.

Any book in which topics as hard, and heavy, and unbearable, such as racism, in my opinion, are heartbreaking. It’s difficult to read about atrocious crimes, and hideous words, and odious actions. They aren’t easy.

I think the brilliance of this book is in alternating the experience of Beauty, with her lifetime of living directly with these injustices, and Robin, a child being taught (unknowingly) to be the oppressor. Robin repeats what she has been taught, stating hypocrisy or even outright hatred without thought. It is only when Beauty begins to question her beliefs, has her think about the reasoning or logic behind what she thinks she believes and what she has personally experienced, that Robin begins to decide who she wants to be. Beauty unroots the seeds that have been planted in Robin’s mind, and allows new ones to grow in their place.

Edith, in her own way also helps to unroot these ideas in Robin’s mind simply by who she is. She has homosexual friends and doesn’t agree with segregation. She isn’t outright rebellious, but is still defiant in her refusal to conform. In some ways, this extends to how she cares for Robin. She loves her, but simply cannot change who she is because of what people think.

I loved how Marais used the invisibility of children to highlight what we say as adults and what we do in a way that both highlights the absurd and confusing nature of adults, and society at large. Children don’t know why we behave in certain societal norms, but they accept these norms anyway. Many of the things Robin says are funny, but also serve to show how much children listen, even if they do not understand.

“Children are invisible because we’re thought to be powerless, so people say things in front of me here that they wouldn’t say otherwise.”

This book is a complex look at the relationships we have with children. Whether our own, or us as children, we are shaped by who we are surrounded by. We can become good, or bad. Violent, or peaceful. Angry, or loving. All because of who shapes us.

Our nature is to love. But love is often misunderstood, or manipulated, or changed. We carve it and need it so much, that our fear of losing it often keeps it from us.

“I wanted to find the words to express that I thought I was coming close to understanding the nature of love; that love can’t be held captive, and it can’t be bestowed by a prisoner on their captor, even if the prisoner is in a glass cage and oblivious to its captivity.”

This book is about love. Love of a mother and daughter. Love of an aunt and niece. And love between two strangers, brought together because of tragedy.

“I am learning how love wells up and causes great pain when it has nowhere to go.”

We are meant to love. This book strips down our complicated human nature and paints it in stunning simplicity. Along the way, we are exposed to a rich narrative showing the history of Apartheid South Africa. We are shown that the line between good and evil is often very blurry. That life is never as clear as we wish it was, and that truth comes in many forms.

I highly recommend this book. It comes out July 11.

Pre-order link

Thank you Penguin First to Read for giving me the opportunity to read and review this book!

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