In Hum If You Don’t Know the Words (Putnam, 432 pp., *** out of four stars), South Africa native Bianca Marais gives us a glimpse into her country’s fevered history through the eyes of characters rooted on both sides of the color line.
In June 1976, the lives of Robin, a white girl, and Beauty, a black woman, are upended by the Soweto uprising, a seminal moment in the anti-apartheid struggle when dozens of black children were killed by police after they took to the streets to protest Afrikaans becoming the official language of school instruction.
In the aftermath, Robin’s parents are murdered, and Beauty’s daughter, a young activist and leader, disappears.
With lyrical, evocative prose, Marais does an elegant job switching between the voices of a 9-year-old child and an older woman who are both searching for answers as they deal with overwhelming loss and a society’s twisted social mores.
Marais’s writing potently displays the everyday cruelty of the pro-apartheid regime, from the casual use of racial slurs, to the absurdity of whites putting the quotidian necessities of life in the hands of brown and black people whose humanity most deny.
We are also introduced to the circle that embraces Robin and Beauty. Its members are alternately funny, warm and intriguing, yet because they are Jewish or gay or simply progressive in the way they view the world, they are also outcasts in this intolerant society.
Robin’s story initially runs parallel to Beauty’s, and at times her chapters can feel like a jarring interruption to Beauty’s fraught narrative in which the mother searches for her child while navigating the indignities and hardships that come with being a black person in segregated South Africa. But when Beauty’s path and life finally intersect with Robin’s, the pace balances out, and the novel moves swiftly towards its emotional conclusion.
Hum sometimes treads perilously close to the tiresome template in which a precocious white character is courageous and compassionate far beyond her years, while the black characters are near-saintly in their selflessness. A scene in a “shebeen,’’ an illegal township bar, in which Robin tries to prove that she’s not like other whites by dancing to “kwela’’ music with a black youth — garnering roaring applause from the black patrons — is particularly treacly. But the…