HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS by Bianca Marais
South Africa 1976. Robin Conrad is the 9-year-old daughter of Jolene and Keith. They are white South Africans. Keith works for a gold mining company, and the family lives in a Johannesburg suburb with other descendants of British and European settlers. The other important person in Robin’s life is the family’s black maid, Mabel.
Beauty Mbali is an educated black woman, a teacher, a widow. Her daughter, Nomsa, came to Johannesburg to continue her education. We meet Beauty as she comes to Johannesburg in search of her daughter who has become involved in student politics, much to her mother’s dismay.
Very early in the novel, on the evening of the 16th of June 1976, Robin’s parents, who had gone out to a party, promising to return, are murdered. In the next few days, Jolene’s sister arrives to care for Robin, and Mabel chooses to return to her own family. Robin has lost everyone she loved and is removed from her home, and school, to live with Edith in Johannesburg.
Bianca Marais writes well about grief, as both Robin and Edith look for distraction to avoid coping with their overwhelming grief. It is at the funeral that Edith advises Robin to “hum if you don’t know the words”. And, I thought that was also good advice for life in general – hum, or just make it up as you go along, because it will go along, in whatever direction it takes, whether we know the words or not.
Edith finds it very difficult, though she loved Robin, to sacrifice her own independent life to care for her niece. When, by chance, Beauty comes into their lives, needing a job, it seems the perfect solution for everyone.
Hum If You Don’t Know the Words is a novel rich in character and story. The time in which it is set is one of turmoil and readers will ask themselves unanswerable questions about the difference between freedom fighters and terrorists. There are moments when some of the situations in which Robin finds herself required me to suspend my disbelief, but I found myself caring quite desperately about the welfare of this child.
The novel begins only a few days before the Soweto Student Uprising on 16 June 1976. Some see this event as the beginning of the end of Apartheid, and since 1995 the 16th of June is known as Youth Day. It was also the beginning of a massive exodus of white South Africans, many of whom made their way to Canada.
Bianca Marais will read from Hum If You Don’t Know the Words at the Charles W. Stockey Centre on Thursday 26 October at 7:30 pm, along with Kathleen Winter and Catherine Chidgey, an evening presented by the International Festival of authors Parry Sound.