Hum if You Don't Know the Words by Bianca Marais (Digital Galley Review)

Hum If You Don't Know the Words by Bianca Marais
Publisher: Putnam Books
Description from the publisher: 
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. 

Both main characters grabbed my heartstrings from the beginning of this novel, and never let go. I felt an immediate connection to young Robin as a tomboyish bookworm growing up in the 70s, and loses her parents at a very young age. (I suffered the loss of my father at a similar age, and there was much of Robin's psyche that resonated with me.) Her inner life was equal parts hilarious, infuriating, and heartbreaking. As a mother, I immediately identified with Beauty and her anguish as she does everything in her power to find her missing daughter. 

I am duly impressed with this debut and the author's ability to create such suspense, drop a few well timed plot twists, all while deftly weaving together plot lines. Some of action as the story came to a dramatic end felt a little far fetched, and the links between some of the peripheral characters were tenuous. However, it was a enthralling story of love, loss and strength in adversity. The ending was a little nebulous about the future of the characters, almost in a purposeful way, making me wonder if there will be a sequel. If so, I am ON BOARD.

Knowing little about apartheid in South Africa going into this book, I felt as though I learned more, as well as more about my own culture with the very obvious racial and political parallels to the United States. I found myself googling information about the Soweto uprising and, although it is hard to digest, it is important to bear witness to the history. This would be a perfect companion read with Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, which has been on my to-read for too long and is moving up in the queue, for sure.  

Many thanks to Putnam Books for an advance copy to review!


  1. I feel like there are lots of books about apartheid coming out these days! This, Born a Crime, What We Lose. Glad you enjoyed this one!

    1. And The Lost History of Stars! It's rife with possibilities, and I feel like we are all tapped out on WWII...