Book Review: Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais


By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis / @zaralibrary

bk - hum if you dont know the words


Category: Literary Fiction
Author: Bianca Marais
Format: Hardcover, 432 pages
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
ISBN: 9-780-3995-7506-8
Pub Date: July 11, 2017


Summary from Publisher:

Life under Apartheid has created a secure future for Robin Conrad, a nine-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.

Told through Beauty and Robin’s alternating perspectives, the interwoven narratives create a rich and complex tapestry of the emotions and tensions at the heart of Apartheid-era South Africa. Hum if You Don’t Know the Words is a beautifully rendered look at loss, racism, and the creation of family.

  • From Goodreads

Book Review:

Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais is a kind spotlight on the war against Apartheid in South Africa through the lens of a young, white girl named Robin Conrad, orphaned at the death of her parents in Johannesburg who eventually comes into the care of Beauty Mbali, a woman from the remote village Transkei in a desperate search for her daughter, Nomsa, who went missing during a mobilized protest that erupted into a riot between black students and white, security police.

The story is a microcosm of relationship between several characters—those who are ostracized and those who dominate socially at the time.

Though the characters seem to be written somewhat superficially or at least somewhat stereotypically, they were of enough to move the plot along.

Robin, the young, white orphan is rambunctious, portrayed to be innocent enough to love her black maid and later, her black caregiver, with an increasing knowledge of the tensions between the white and black community. She copes with this racism through the polarity of her twin sister, Cat and resigns to trauma at the death of her parents, Keith and Jolene Conrad—white, middle class, Afrikaaners whose opinions of black people are both low and condescending.

Edith, Robin’s aunt and last living relative who is an attractive airhostess for South African Airways and a flamboyant and eclectic world traveller is suddenly burdened with the unexpected obligation of motherhood and domestication, a role she finds rather difficult to navigate.

Then there are those who suffer the fate of Apartheid: Beauty Mbali, a widow with four children, an educated teacher who lives in a remote village and must journey a 6 km walk to a main road just to taxi 400 km to a province called Natal, another 400 km northeast to Pietermaritzburg by a crowded bus to go north past Midlands through Drakensburg Mountains, and then finally to Johannesburg—to visit her brother Andile who lives in Zondi, Soweto, in search of her missing daughter, Nomsa.

A number of other characters enforce a plot of racial cruelty and disparity such as: Piet Bekker, Wouter, and Marnus of the Die Boerseun Bende, an Afrikaaner Boy Gang, six boys ranging from 8-12 year-olds; Maggie, Andrew, Kgomotso, and Wilhelmina Vaughn, those who fight against white supremacy; The Goldman’s and their son, Morrie, a Jewish family; Victor and Johan, friends who are homosexual; King George, a bi-racial man; and Shakes Ngubane, a recruiter and leader of the Umkhonto we Sizwe or the Spear of the Nation, an armed wing of the African National Congress.

What was most enjoyable about the book was its narrative, the sprinkling of dialects in English, Afrikaans, Sotho, and Xhosa, which gave the book its true, cultural flavour. The reader can hear the narrative leap off the page as characters speak in their mother tongues, which showed not only the diversity of South Africa itself, but the richness of its many languages and cultures, however conflicted they appeared to be.

While black, white, homosexual, heterosexual, Christian, Jew, Englishman, Afrikaaner, were depicted to unite in the small microcosm of friendship in the book and some of the characters were endearing (I especially enjoyed the awkwardness and loyalty of Morrie Goldman); the failing of the book, otherwise, was often times the “telling” of the story, obvious “telling” of what readers should have been able to infer or realize on their own, would the writing be mature and well-crafted enough to indicate it through actions of the characters, nuances, or subtle hints. This was my only disappointment in the novel, aside from the stereotypical superficiality of most of the characters or the serendipitous, sometimes unrealistic plot in the novel.

While the theme of Apartheid is a serious one, its gravity in context felt distant, submerged instead beneath an almost calculated plot of responses and outcomes, something that lacked the depth and introversion needed to showcase the complexity of relationship and race at the time.


Characters: 3 stars
Plot: 3 stars
Language/Narrative: 3 stars
Dialogue: 3.5 stars
Pacing: 3 stars
Cover Design: 3 stars


Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Penguin Random House Canada on behalf of G.P. Putnam’s Sons for providing me with a hardcover of the book, Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais in exchange for an honest and timely review.


About the Author:

author - bianca marais

Bianca Marais holds a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto’s SCS, and her work has been published in World Enough and Crime.

Before turning to writing, she started a corporate training company and volunteered with Cotlands, where she assisted care workers in Soweto with providing aid for HIV/AIDS orphans and their caregivers.

Originally from South Africa, she now resides in Toronto with her husband.

  • From Goodreads


You may connect with Bianca Marais through her official website, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.



zara - kai lan frame


Author: zaraalexis

Writer. Bibliotaphe. Fountain Pen & Stationery Addict. Lipstick Junkie. Justice Advocate. Wife. Mother. Warrior.

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