Hum If You Don’t Know the Words

  • Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais (Putnam), July 11, 2017
  • In 40 words or less: Beginning with the Soweto uprising, a young white girl and a Xhosa woman are thrown together as a family. Their complementary narratives enrich insights into life under apartheid. Great book!
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Locale: Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Time: 1970s
  • Forty years after the uprising that began the end of Apartheid, this novel opens a door to the challenges of life for the Blacks and others in South Africa fighting for change. A wonderful novel of people in very difficult times.

Robin is a young Anglophone girl growing up in South Africa. Bullied by her Afrikaans schoolmates, she is very concerned about living up to her parents’ expectations. Her father is a manager in a mining operation, overseeing Black workers. When her parents receive a last minute invitation to a business function Robin’s life is changed forever. En route to the event, Robin’s parents are ambushed and murdered. So starts Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. Robin and her housekeeper are dragged to a notorious police station where the housekeeper is brutalized. Robin is turned over to her only relative, her Aunt Enid who lives in Johannesburg. After gathering up a small suitcase, Robin’s past life is left behind.

Beauty Mbali is a well-educated teacher living with her sons in the Transkei. Looking to improve her daughter’s life, she sends her to Johannesburg to live with relatives and attend a superior school. After receiving a message that her daughter may be in trouble, she travels for more than a day to Soweto to see her. Beauty arrives in the midst of the first day of the student marches, discovering that her daughter is in the leadership and is now missing. Beauty will do whatever it takes to find her daughter.

Robin isn’t the only one adjusting to her family’s trauma. Enid is a stewardess and modern single woman with no one to account to but herself. Though she tries, upending her life to provide the care Robin requires herself is neither practical nor within her skill set. She reaches out to her network of friends, many of whom are anti-Apartheid supporters, for help. Through these channels, Beauty becomes Robin’s caregiver, confidant, and lifeline. This allows Beauty to remain in Johannesburg, though illegally, so she can continue to search for her daughter.

Bianca Marais has created two rich communities to tell her story. Bit by bit, Robin’s world expands. Her one friend is a Jewish boy, homeschooled because of the anti-Semitic bullying he receives at school. His apartment becomes a safe space and his family’s customs a source of curiosity. Enid has several gay male friends who are at times endangered by the authorities. At times it is difficult for Robin to distinguish friend from foe.

During the continuing search for her daughter, Beauty reveals elements of her family and its past. Protecting all her children leaves her torn – caring for a white child while her sons are back home and her daughter missing. Her search takes her through Soweto, balancing secrecy with her goal. Vivid descriptions of afterhours gathering places and the leaders and hoodlums that are all part of the growing uprising enrich both the story and the reader’s understanding of the times.

Both Beauty and Robin are leading their lives as survivors rather than as victims.  Not always optimistic, each demonstrates inner strength consistent with her position in life. Neither is perfect and these flaws are key to the story.

As a blogger and book group leader, I have the chance to read some books before they are published or reviewed. It can be a crapshoot – some good, some meh and some not worth finishing. And then there are the special books.  I love Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. There are twists, even in the beginning. As I read I could see the story unfold, almost as if a movie was taking place in my mind. This is Bianca Marais’s debut novel. It has been selected as an Indie Next selection for this month and has gotten well-deserved advance accolades. It is a great pick for book groups and to share.

Not All ‘Enchanted Islands’ Are Paradise

  • Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend (Doubleday), 2016
  • In 40 words or less: Loosely based on a woman who lived with her husband on the Galapagos Islands prior to WWII,  a novel of a woman striving to overcome the poverty of an immigrant home, using her skills and life-long secretiveness to become a US spy.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Duluth, Chicago, San Francisco, Galapagos Islands
  • Time: 1890-1964
  • Readers who enjoy exotic settings will find the descriptions of life on the islands fascinating. The lives of the fictional Frances and Ainslie Conway are far more complicated than just their intelligence mission and likely than their real lives.

Allison Amend had taken a lovely nugget, two memoirs of Frances Conway’s experience in the Galapagos Islands, and used it as a springboard for this novel of hardship, transformation, and love. Amend imagined Frances as one of seven children born to Polish-Jewish immigrants to Duluth in the 1880s. The early portions of the novel contrast her family life with that of her friend Rosalie, the only child of educated German immigrants. Despite the relative comforts of Rosalie’s home, dark secrets propel the two to leave for Chicago at fifteen.Woven into the plot are historical details about the roles young women on their own could take at the turn of the 20th century. Franny and Rosalie sought out the Jewish community to provide a lifeline as they first arrived in Chicago but had no interest in assimilating into that life. In the course of her secretarial work, Franny also becomes involved in the surreptitious publication of early Zionist newsletters, not out of interest but rather through happenstance.

Franny and Rosalie take differing paths to securing their futures. After a blow-up with Rosalie, Frances heads west, initially to live on a farm, later to California as a secretary in military intelligence.  These experiences become the qualifications she needs to enter into an arranged marriage with an intelligence officer who is to be posted to the Galapagos Islands to keep an eye on the German residents suspected of providing information to the growing Reich. Before leaving San Francisco, Franny and Rosalie reunite. Rosalie is now a wealthy society matron, involved in the civic and Jewish community, living a life she’d like to share with Franny, her oldest and only true friend.

Franny’s marriage to Ainslie Conway is a creation of spycraft. Neither had been married or expected to. The cover story for “going native” was to remove Ainslie from the temptations of alcohol, apparently one of the facts this story hangs on. As the narrator, Franny’s vulnerability and desire for all levels of intimacy are revealed. Reading with 21st-century sensibilities, the challenges to their marriage are clear.

Amend does a wonderful job of describing the daily challenges that the rough terrain, limited supplies, and communications cause during their time in the Galapagos. On an island with less than a dozen residents, most of whom were German,  privacy was highly valued and there was little cushion between basic survival and potential disaster.  Medical care and any other services from more populated areas were days, if not weeks, away. Given the intelligence operations, using the hidden military radio was limited to specific purposes. As the war approached, US naval vessels periodically approached the island for reconnaissance purposes.

As is clear from the start, Franny and Rosalie are destined to reconnect again and the story comes full circle. Amend has an ambitious agenda with Enchanted Islands. She takes on the Jewish immigrant experience, the exploitation of young women, early feminism, spycraft and life in an exotic locale. Throughout it all, loyalty and friendship are key. While there is a lot to learn about life just before the war in the Galapagos, don’t expect to meet the real Frances, Ainslie or Rosalie.  Knowing this up front is good enough for me.






Seeing the moon differently

There is little like the play of the moon on endless water to remind me I’m an infinitesimal particle in the vast universe. This view is of the moon on a bay leading to the ocean in Falmouth, MA, on Cape Cod. This has been a lovely change of pace with a friend at her home. Next stop, the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. For those unfamiliar with either area, both are rich with natural beauty, culture, and endless opportunities to explore or just sit and relax.

So far, I’ve finished two books on this trip (write-ups for another time.) I’ve made a stop at the local bookstore, as I always do wherever I travel.  My purchase included a historical fiction title by a local author.

With the moon still almost full, I know I’ll be searching it out each night as we travel, much like Fieval in An American Tale.

Participating in the Daily Post “Moon”

‘My Brilliant Friend’ is a book for sharing

IN A NUTSHELLUnknown - Version 2
My Brilliant Friend

  • My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2012)
  • In 40 words or less: The first of four novels by an elusive Italian author centering on the friendship of two women from their childhood in Naples to the present.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Naples
  • Time: 1950’s-60’s
  • Read this for an intimate view of life in an isolated working class Italian neighborhood.

In Spring, 2012, I went to the Europa Editions booth at Book Expo and asked which of their titles they would recommend above all others for book groups.  And I took home a yellow-bound advance copy of My Brilliant Friend. As I started to read it, I realized it really is a book to share in a group.

Fast forward to 2015. The final book, The Story of the Lost Child, is released in the U.S. market to great acclaim. My Brilliant Friend becomes a bestseller and I encourage a group to choose it for discussion. And just this week it was announced there’s a move to bring the story to the (small) screen.

Reading about Elena and Lila often seems like you are tagging along behind two best friends, hearing their secrets and their bickering, growing closer and farther apart as they face individual challenges. From childhood the girls were different from most in their tight-knit neighborhood. Smart and competitive, their families often don’t understand them. Ferrante takes the reader in and out of all the apartments, low-end shops and into the intimacies of families struggling to make their way. The community has its own enforcers and watches out for those unable to take of themselves.The first book in the quartet takes Elena and Lila from playing with dolls through Lila’s wedding.




Ferrante’s fine writing, as ably translated by Ann Goldstein, belies the roughness in the storytelling that reflects life in these Naples neighborhoods in the 1950’s and 60’s.  Disputes are often settled with violence and women have little or no say in their lives. People cross the boundaries of the neighborhood as if they were leaving the country.  And there is little curiosity about the Naples that tourists visit or even the nearby seashore.

The mission of the publisher, Europa Editions, is to bring international literary fiction to American and British audiences. Based in New York with deep Italian roots, their books are well-written, affordable and beautiful.  I love the look and feel of their books – soft-covered with a matte finish and books flaps as part of the cover. My Brilliant Friend is a wonderful introduction to this publishing gem.