Author brings South Africa to life with beautiful novel

Two people struggling to move forward in the face of crippling loss come together in Bianca Marais’ new novel, “Hum if You Don’t Know the Words.” The book is set in South Africa in 1976 amid racially charged violence. Robin, a 9-year-old white girl whose parents are murdered, and Beauty, a black woman whose daughter goes missing after a protest is violently put down, are thrust into each other’s lives. They bring each other solace even as prejudice and violence continue to threaten all they hold dear.

Marais is originally from South Africa, and she brings her homeland to life with compelling descriptions of both city and rural life and of the great divide that separated people during the apartheid era. Robin and Beauty tell their stories by turns — Robin in the past tense and Beauty in the present — and Marais renders their individual voices beautifully. In particular, she captures the partial understandings, naivete, and half-baked plans that shape a willful 9-year-old’s life.

Beauty expresses many of the book’s darker truths in lovely, somber language. Here she reflects on the nature of grief: “Only after I had learned those boundaries and generalities of my grief was I able to venture further into the mountains and valleys, the peaks and troughs of my despair ... (G) rief is a city all of its own, built high on a hill and surrounded by stone walls. It is a fortress that you will inhabit for the rest of your life walking its dead-end roads forever. The trick is to stop trying to escape and, instead, to make yourself at home.”

Robin finds herself awash in a world of people who desire to live outside the prescribed roles South African society has cast them in. Occasionally, her observations about them — “(W) e were all there together, but somehow that eclectic jumble of labels was overwritten by the one classification that applied to every person there: ‘friend’” — are just a smidgen too pat. But by and large, the emotions of the cobbled together family at the center of “Hum if You Don’t Know the Words” ring true.