Life under Apartheid has created a secure future for Robin Conrad, a ten-year-old white girl living with her parents in 1970s Johannesburg. In the same nation but worlds apart, Beauty Mbali, a Xhosa woman in a rural village in the Bantu homeland of the Transkei, struggles to raise her children alone after her husband’s death. Both lives have been built upon the division of race, and their meeting should never have occurred . . . until the Soweto Uprising, in which a protest by black students ignites racial conflict, alters the fault lines on which their society is built, and shatters their worlds when Robin’s parents are left dead and Beauty’s daughter goes missing. After Robin is sent to live with her loving but irresponsible aunt, Beauty is hired to care for Robin while continuing the search for her daughter. In Beauty, Robin finds the security and family that she craves, and the two forge an inextricable bond through their deep personal losses. But Robin knows that if Beauty finds her daughter, Robin could lose her new caretaker forever, so she makes a desperate decision with devastating consequences. Her quest to make amends and find redemption is a journey of self-discovery in which she learns the harsh truths of the society that once promised her protection.
It’s already October but I’ve found another favorite. Hum If You Don’t Know The Words will definitely make my Best Of 2017 list and it’s already one of those books I know I will keep recommending to everyone. I devoured this beautiful novel in less than two days and I highlighted many quotes and dialogues, which is always a great sign. I haven’t felt this way since I read The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, which, incidentally, has a similar main character, which must be part of the reason why I love them both.
I was recommended this book by two of my favorite bloggers, Renee and Susie. Like them, I was attracted to this story because of the comparisons to two of my favorites: The Help & The Secret Life of Bees. And yes, I can see the resemblance, especially when it comes to female friendship and racism (although the stories are obviously really different). I’m happy to say that Hum If You Don’t Know The Words deeply moved me and left a lasting impression too. I won’t forget about this novel.
This is the story of two women: Robin Conrad, a nine-year-old white girl, and Beauty Mbali, a black woman searching for her daughter. These two characters have apparently nothing in common, but their lives will connect in a wonderful way. Most of the reviews I read praised Beauty’s narration and I agree that hers was a heartbreaking and engaging story. I admired her courage and determination. But I also fell in love with Robin’s perspective (and I admit I totally didn’t see that first “twist” coming). I get that she acted too mature for her age, but I’ve realized I don’t mind that when reading fiction, as long as it helps with the story. And yes, I’m fully aware that the last part of the story wasn’t realistic at all, but I was enjoying the book so much that it didn’t even bother me. I deeply enjoyed reading about Robin’s relationship with Cat, her aunt Edith (whom, despite her flaws, I really liked!), and, of course, Beauty and her Jewish neighbour.
What I liked the most about Hum If You Don’t Know The Words was that both women showed us two different perspectives of the same world. By following Beauty’s journey, we learn about students protests and racial conflicts and we also get a glimpse of how the world used to treat black women. Beauty’s difficult relationship with her daughter Nomsa was also key in understanding how everything worked back then. How could she possibly come to terms with her daughter’s decisions? On the other hand, Robin’s story was more focused on grief, innocence and it shed light on a different kind of prejudice as well: homosexuality in the 70s South Africa.
One thing that I found extremely interesting was the portrayal of Robin’s parents. They were clearly racists but the author didn’t try to turn them into “villains”; in fact, they were really good with Robin -especially her father-. Like with Lightning Men, I find it so shocking that people could behave that way and discrimination wasn’t even unusual. Even Edith, who clearly prides herself on being modern and tolerant, has a very disturbing scene that made me feel quite ashamed.
As you can see, I could talk about this book for ages, but I don’t want to spoil the experience for you. Hum If You Don’t Know The Words is a wonderful exploration of grief, loss, tolerance, friendship and family and it helped me learn a lot about the Apartheid and South Africa. I wish all books I read made me feel this way.
P.S; Not that it’s important, but this is probably also my favorite book title of the year.
P.S 2: I was so happy when Rodriguez was mentioned! I love him and the fact that he was so popular in South Africa.
Netgalley, G. P. Putnam’s Sons , 2017