Sunday 24 March 2019

Hum If You Don't Know the Words

Finished March 16
Hum If You Don't Know the Words by Bianca Marais

This novel is set in 1976 and 1977 in Johannesburg, South Africa. There are two main characters that you have narrating the plot. One is a nine year old white English girl, and the other is a middle-aged black woman with a college education.
It gets off to a slow start, but I was soon fully engaged. I'd left this read for my book club until the last minute, but it was no problem reading the whole book in one day.
Robin Conrad is the nine year old child. Her parents have an English background, and her father is a mine supervisor. She is left out of the play activities of the other children in her neighbourhood as they are all of Dutch background. She is also a bit of a tomboy, and would rather play with boys than girls, which the boys definitely want no part of. Robin has a twin sister, Cat, that one only gradually discovers the truth about. This was an interesting aspect of the book and of Robin's character.
When a tragedy befalls Robin's parents, she goes to live with her aunt Edith, who is a flight attendant, and often away for long periods. This obviously won't work well with being responsible for a small child, and it is some time before Edith finds a solution, and she doesn't find it on her own.
Beauty Mbali is a teacher in the Orange Free State. Her husband worked in the mine, but died of work-related disease. She has two sons who live with her, Khwezi who is 13, and Luxolo who is 15. She also has a daughter, Momsa who is 17, and who she has sent to live with her brother in Soweto so that she can go to high school. As the book begins, she has received a letter from her brother saying that her daughter is in danger, and she travels to Johannesburg to see what is happening. But she arrives on the day that black students are holding a peaceful march relating to their curriculum, and the police respond with force. Momsa is missing, and Beauty can't find her. She must stay to search for her, and the best way to do that is to get a job as a servant.
It is this way that the two stories come together.
I liked the diverse characters shown here: Edith, who travels internationally; some of Edith's male friends who are gay; Robin's Dutch neighbours; Robin's parents' black maid, Mable; Edith's neighbours, the Goldman family, who are Jewish; and the caretaker in Edith's apartment building, who is coloured.
As we see Robin work through her grief, and her guilt, and look to do the right thing in her own mind, we also see how the various people around her deal with their life situations.
I really enjoyed this read, and the touches of humour that came through despite the serious plot. My book club members mostly enjoyed these aspects as well.


  1. I've been wondering about this book and if it was worth reading; the premise and the setting are so intriguing. So I'm very glad to know you liked it. Have you read Marais' newest book? I want to read that one, too. :)

  2. No, I haven't read the new one yet, but I definitely want to. There were a couple of times in this one, where the narrator said things like "But that's a story for another time." so I'm hoping she'll follow up with these characters at some point.