Tag Archives: book review

Book review – Hum if you don’t know the words




This wonderful book came out almost two years ago but since Bianca’s second novel If you want to make God laugh is due for publication on July 16th I thought it worth sharing my original review. If you haven’t read this I urge to rush out and buy a copy and if you have, get excited for Laugh – it is absolutely just as brilliant!




Hum If You Don’t Know the Words – the debut novel from Bianca Marais

Bianca Marais pulls no punches in her depiction of the 1974 Soweto student uprising and its aftermath. The two central characters, Beauty and Robin are each caught up in the horror, though from different sides. Their connection in the months following, with Robin’s parents dead and Beauty’s daughter missing, see them become closer than either of them would have thought possible in 1974 South Africa. The depiction of apartheid, its severity and dehumanising treatment of those on the ‘wrong side’ is difficult to read since practice is now accepted as abhorrent.

Marais is coming from a place of confidence though, being a native South African, and this confidence translates to her writing. The characterisation of a nine year old English girl, her feckless aunt on whom responsibility is suddenly thrust and an African teacher from a tiny rural village are all deeply and realistically rendered.

Through the sheer horror of reading about the events, and those specific to Robin and Beauty, we develop sympathy for them all, and the tension around both of the central themes is gripping. Robin believes she is unwanted and tries her best to hold onto her memories of her parents and what they expected of her. Beauty, despite becoming more and more frantic in the search for her daughter, diligently cares for Robin and the two come to depend on each other.

Their stories entwine in ways that seem almost impossible but Robin’s grit and determination to help Beauty see her entering Soweto township and trying to persuade those who see her as the enemy to help her.

Marais handles what could have been a tragic or far fetched story with skill, honesty and, where it allows, humour. There are surprises along the way to keep the reader guessing enough to keep the pages turning at speed. There is a strong hint at the end that the story of Robin and Beauty may not be finished. In lesser books this could come across as crass but in my case at least, the admiration and fondness I came to have for them both – and the feckless aunt – makes it a welcome possibility.





City of Girls


city of girls

In one of the most anticipated books of the year, Elizabeth Gilbert turns to fiction again and in doing so demonstrates once more her impressive versatility in terms of style, theme and setting.

With the assertion ‘you don’t have to be a “good girl” to be a good person’ made on the cover, Gilbert leaves ambiguity at the door (where we find her characters are often wont to leave their inhibitions). Setting out her intentions towards her readers in a letter at the front, Gilbert takes on hundreds of stories throughout history in which women, acting on or even displaying wanton sensuality is an inevitable precursor to shame, devastation and downfall.

To tackle such a behemoth might have resulted in an unbridled feminist shriek without any real heft but with deftness of touch Gilbert generously imbues her characters with depth and a certain grace alongside their passions.

The 1940’s New York of the novel offers twenty year old Vivian Morris a dramatic alternative to her small-town upbringing when, having dropped out of college, she is packed off to stay with her eccentric Aunt Peg in her tumbledown theatre in midtown Manhattan. Thrown among a cast of bohemians, showgirls and artists (or degenerates depending on your standpoint), Vivvie unequivocally embraces her new home and lifestyle, opening her heart (among other things) with a joyful disregard for consequences.

Consequences will not be pushed aside however. Scandal on a scale which would doubtless have been the denouement of the story told from a different angle in another time, sees Vivian cowed but not broken. There is retreat but only for a time. The phoenix-like Vivian is more vibrant and deeper in spirit for having had to put herself back together and through this Gilbert provides ever deeper engagement between reader and character.

Gilbert’s determination to pull off a story championing the right of women to go after happiness however they see fit is a triumph. Vivian’s charming temerity and effusive belief in herself alongside her sense of duty when times demand might somehow render her familiar to ourselves.

She relates the twists and turns of life to Angela, whose father is something to Vivian though we know not what until Angela herself does at the end of the story.  The subtleties and elegant quality  of the relationships towards the end of the book are a stark contrast to those of the earlier chapters  seeming to demonstrate the joy to be found in passion restrained as well as unbridled.

The cast Gilbert has built around Vivian brings great strength to the overall story while allowing the individuals to shine or sometimes glitter darkly, in their own chaotic, challenging ways. The idea of life imitating art is never far away as life hurls about more drama than the play they are working on. The star of the show is always Vivvie and how wonderfully satisfying it is for us as readers to stay the course with her and how dull life momentarily feels once her story is complete.

girls new york 1940s


The Island Of Sea Women by Lisa See



If you love stories of strong, fearless women, their relationships to each other and family, the depiction of their path, stumbling blocks and successes, you will love this book. Lisa See gives us wonderful characters living amid a terrible yet fascinating history.

The Island of Sea Women is as exquisite in its rendering as it is heartbreaking in its storyline. Set over the course of seven decades it follows the lives of Young-sook and Mi-ja, best friends from Jeju, an island province of South Korea. Young-sook’s future as a haenyeo, a member of her area’s diving collective is guaranteed by her lineage. Mi-ja on the other hand is the orphaned daughter of a Japanese collaborator (Jeju was occupied by Japan for much of the beginning of the Twentieth Century) and as such tainted by default and ostracised by the village.

They meet as children when of course neither status nor heritage matters. Thanks to Young-sook’s mother being chief of their collective Mi-ja is granted an opportunity to dive and the other haenyeo have no choice but to accept it. Jeju’s matrifocal culture is steeped in traditions and beliefs. The depiction of customs and ceremonies utterly enthralled me and led me to marvel at the massive differences in cultures and yet also think about the common thread linking so many women – that of family and motherhood.

I quickly became attached to both Young-sook and Mi-ja, so different but so incredibly dedicated to one another. The girls live in a time of colossal change, they are fated to navigate life against the backdrop of horrifying events as the Second World War and its aftermath rages close by and rends the region apart. The milestones of life – marriage, babies, work, death of loved ones take place in spite of the upheavals but are by no means unaffected.

You will cry and feel heartsore. You will grit your teeth and knit your brows as you keep pace with Young-sook and Mi-ja. You will will them on. You will find yourself researching the history, in awe of the facts and of your ignorance. You will put a visit to Jeju on your bucket list. You will miss the book once you read the final page.