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.