Hum if You Don't Know the Words

In her breathtaking debut, Bianca Marais explores humanity's potential for compassion and understanding in a world consumed by hate and injustice. Robin Conrad is Marais's white, nine-year-old, female narrator living in 1970s South Africa. Her story alternates with that of Beauty Mbali, an educated, black Xhosa mother.

Robin lives a comfortable life with her parents in Johannesburg, observing the apartheid laws that force her black maid to use separate bathroom facilities, eat from different dishes and carry a passbook to verify her work status. Meanwhile, Beauty, a widowed schoolteacher living in a small, rural village of the Transkei, struggles to raise her three children, the oldest of whom is living with her brother, Andile, and attending school in the suburb of Soweto. The two exist in their disconnected worlds until a tragedy strikes, and their spheres collide during an uprising in the city streets.

With humor, warmth and tenderness, Marais pulls her audience into this unlikely but heartwarming bond. The exquisiteness of Robin and Beauty's connection is enhanced by the contrast of apartheid's repulsiveness, both of which are forcefully illustrated. Marais injects hope and light into the darkness of hate with scenes such as Robin's realization that "Almost everyone who mattered most to me was in the same room.... Black, white, homosexual, heterosexual, Christian, Jew, Englishman, Afrikaner, adult, child, man, woman: we were all there together, but somehow that eclectic jumble of labels was overwritten by the one classification that applied to every person there: 'friend.' "

Intense, powerful and moving, Hum if You Don't Know the Words is an exalting anthem of love, family and humanity. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

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