Hum if you don’t know the words by Bianca Marais

Hum if you don't knowLife 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.


I found out about this book through Renee (Its book talk) and Annie (The Misstery). I was intrigued by the setting and the comparison with The Secret Life of Bees and The Help. I also loved the title.

Hum if you don’t know the words by Bianca Marais is set in South Africa during the apartheid. The story mainly covers events that took place during the Soweto uprising. I have read a lot about the uprising and watched movies such as Sarafina. However, the author still managed to tug on my heartstrings with the description of the uprising. The first scene with the demonstrations was quite moving such that I had to take a break before continuing with the book.

The story is narrated through two main POVs. Beauty is a black woman in search of her daughter, Nomsa who went missing during the uprising. On the other hand, Robin is a little white girl whose parents were murdered during the uprising. I liked these two narrators. Robin’s story broke my heart. She was so young but the world had turned against her. She didn’t even understand half of what was going on. There are many moving scenes involving her. I think one that stands out the most is her parent’s funeral. Robin reminded me exactly where I was two weeks ago when my friend was murdered. Robin’s grief was hard to read about. However, I think the author did a great job in portraying her emotions.

Beauty reminded me of my own mom. I admired her strength and determination to find her daughter. As Robin described her, Beauty had a big heart and she was easy to like. I thought that the two narrations were interspersed brilliantly. At the end, I liked both of them equally.

This book tackles the main theme of racism. I liked the questions that the author posed through the characters. One character asked why white people in South Africa hated the blacks.  I think it’s a question that we all ask about hate. Why did Nazis hate Jews? Why do white supremacists hate blacks? Generally, why do humans hate? Is there any justifiable reason to hate someone because they are different? Honestly, all excuses for prejudice sound really silly to me. I liked the discussions are hate and felt that they were thought-provoking.

I did enjoy this book but I still think that there was a lot going on. I feel like the author tried to tackle so many prejudices in one story.There were characters that seemed to only came in to the story to portray certain prejudices.  The prejudices sort of pushed other themes to the background. There were also events especially towards the end that felt unrealistic. I won’t lie; a certain scene in a club involving dancing, a t-shirt and a language had me rolling my eyes. I also struggled to get a feel of Robin’s exact age. There are times that she did things that didn’t match her age. I didn’t like the ending since it felt like a certain ‘savior’ trope. This could be a personal issue because of who I am. Honestly though, I am tired of certain narratives despite the fact that they are quite popular in movies and books.

Nevertheless, this is still an important book.  I think it still managed to tackle the key themes well and also provide information about the uprising and apartheid. There are aspects such as Pass Laws, Immorality Act and relations between races that I felt accurately portrayed the period. I also felt like the author did a great job in tackling grief and loss. In addition, this title is just brilliant. So despite the issues that I mentioned, this is still a book that I recommend to all readers.

19 thoughts on “Hum if you don’t know the words by Bianca Marais

    1. The author did try to tackle so much at the same time but in the end, I liked the book. She did a good job with the story-line despite the issues that I have mentioned.

  1. I’m glad you ended up enjoying it overall Diana! I had the same issue with Robin’s age/behavior inconsistency and the ending is the only reason I didn’t give it a 5 star. Like you I thought the author tacked the issues in the book brilliantly, especially grief. The club scene you referenced did warrant a 🙄!! Excellent review!

    1. Thank you Renee. This was a great read despite the issues that I mentioned. Thanks for the recommendation. Bianca really tackled the key themes brilliantly.

  2. Great review! Being from South Africa, its difficult to deal with some things regarding racism. I hate racism, but we deal with it on a daily basis. One day all I hope for is that a middleground could be found and everyone could move forward together.

    1. I pray so too. I don’t understand why people hate each other because of such issues. In my country, its ethnic hatred/tribalism that we deal with each day. Hopefully, all that will come to and end someday.

  3. Excelllent review, I loved what we talked about and you’re right about the saviour trope, which I didn’t even realize until you mentioned it. However, this was still a truly special book for me and it moved me!

    1. It had a few representation issues but yes, it definitely was a memorable read. I am glad that I finally got to read it. Thanks to you and Renee 🙂

    1. Thank you Laila. The sections about grief were tough to read at some point so I kept taking breaks at first. However, the author tackled the theme so well so I could relate to some of what the characters were going through. In the end, this turned out to be quite a memorable read.

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