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

08.02.2017

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

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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

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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.

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

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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.

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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

Links:

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

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Zara

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Book Review: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

05.15.2017

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Category: Fiction

Author: Tracy Chevalier

Format: E-book via NetGalley, 208 pages

Publisher: Knopf Canada

ISBN: 978-0-3458-0992-6

Pub Date: May 16, 2017

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Summary from Publisher:

Arriving at his fourth school in six years, diplomat’s son Osei Kokote—“O” for short—knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day, so he is lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one boy, used to holding sway in the world of the school­yard, can’t stand to witness the budding relationship. When Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl, the school and its key players—teachers and pupils alike—will never be the same again.

The tragedy of Othello is vividly transposed to a 1970s suburban Washington school, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. The world of preadolescents is as passionate and intense, if not more so, as that of adults. Drawing us into the lives and emotions of four eleven-year-olds—Osei, Dee, Ian and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi—Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by love and jealousy, bullying and betrayal, is as moving as it is enthralling. It is an unfor­gettable novel.

  • From Goodreads

Book Review:

Originally drawn to the cover and description of the novel, New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier, best known for her novel-adapted-to-a-film, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, I delved into the book understanding the dichotomous theme of racism I was expected to experience.

Though the narrative was written with a juvenile tone to depict the voices relative to the characters’ ages in the book—11-year-old boys and girls—I found the writing far too simplistic to carry the weight of its serious theme.

From the stark and polar opposites in culture found in Dee, the girl with golden hair, and Osei, the new boy from Ghana, to the overt simplicity of a school and playground setting, the story seemed too far-fetched in is microcosmic style to its grand attempt to adapt its story based on Shakespeare’s own Othello.

The key players in the novel from Dee and Osei as already mentioned to the attention-seeking Blanca, the popular and privileged Casper, the shy, yet insightful, Mimi, the following brute, Rod, and the manipulative and conniving character, Ian—together form a cast of characters that puppeteer the racial tensions in the novel.

While its narrative was written primarily with what seemed to be towards a young adult audience, the overt racism in the book was difficult to read even with the understanding that the setting takes place in the early 1970’s when racism was still prevalent and more obvious in western society.

Even with the main character’s privilege in society as a son of a diplomat whose status affords his family the opportunity to live in an expensive high rise building with the security and service of a doorman, as well as the opportunity to attend a prestigious school with children of privilege; the unfortunate and unfair catalyst of affliction for Osei is rooted in others’ perception, racism, and discrimination against him because of his skin colour and culture.

It’s emphasized in the novel that Osei is not only the new boy in school with only a month left until the end of the year, but that he is also the first and only black boy in attendance amidst a population of white teachers and students.

The presence of this new dynamic ruptures the routine and politic of the teacher and student body, which is evident both in the classroom as it is in the playground, which is both disturbing as it is a reality for many people of colour at a time when racism was overtly present and tolerated in society.

While the topic of racism is a worthy theme to showcase if not to discuss and educate readers against it; the over-simplistic story of a group of pre-teen children whose response to a new boy from Ghana seems far too superficial to carry the weight of its importance and complexity.

For readers looking for a quick, but uncomfortable read about the black-white politic in the United States during the 1970’s found in a story about a small group of young children who have yet to learn and understand the inclusion of people of colour into society, and the harsh ramifications of discrimination, then this book is fine to add to the bookshelf.

Otherwise, readers looking for more substance in a character-driven novel that attempts to shed light on the varying levels of racism in the spectrum of a diverse and ever-evolving community of peoples, will need to unfortunately look elsewhere.

***

Characters: 2.5 stars

Plot: 2.5 stars

Language/Narrative: 2.5 stars

Dialogue: 2.5 stars

Pacing: 3 stars

Cover Design: 3 stars

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Penguin Random House on behalf of Knopf Canada for providing me with an e-copy of the book, New Boy by Tracy Chevalier through NetGalley in exchange for an honest and timely review.

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About the Author:

author - tracy chevalier

Tracy Chevalier was born in Washington, DC but has lived in England all her adult life. She now has dual citizenship. She has a BA in English from Oberlin College, Ohio, and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, Norwich, England. She lives in London with her English husband and son. Before turning to writing full-time, she was a reference book editor for several years. She has written seven novels. Her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, sold four million copies worldwide and was made into a film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson.

  • From Book Browse

Links:

You can connect with her on her official websiteTwitter, and Goodreads.

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Zara

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