From the book jacket:
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.
I will admit that my knowledge of Apartheid is minimal, aside from perhaps a small scene in Lethal Weapon 2. So, I was curious about this book and drawn to it with hopes that I’d learn a little bit more.
While I gained a slightly better understanding of the various events that occurred during this time period, I wasn’t pulled into the story like I had hoped I would be. Robin’s character development took a particularly odd turn near the end; while her desire to seek redemption was understandable, the way she set out to do so was a bit of a head scratcher. Beauty’s storyline was much more intriguing and interesting to follow; if Hum if You Don’t Know the Words strictly revolved around her I think I would’ve enjoyed it more.
While Marais did a decent job showing compassion and acceptance during a time of hate and despair, somewhere along the storyline this stopped mattering and over-the-top actions took its place. Hum if You Don’t Know the Words was likened to The Help but I’m not so sure it carries the same amount of passion. Perhaps it’s a personal preference, but I just didn’t love it like I thought I would.
My rating: ★★★/5 stars