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Hum If You Don’t Know the Words

4.24  ·  Rating details ·  8,059 ratings  ·  1,350 reviews
Perfect for readers of The Secret Life of Bees and The Help, a perceptive and searing look at Apartheid-era South Africa, told through one unique family brought together by tragedy.

Life 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
Kindle Edition, 432 pages
Published July 11th 2017 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons
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Amber I am starting this one now so I can't say between all three, but have read both of the others, and I'd choose Homegoing over Underground Railroad for …moreI am starting this one now so I can't say between all three, but have read both of the others, and I'd choose Homegoing over Underground Railroad for a group. There are two drastically different styles of storytelling (although I feel both are very important stories): Underground for the most part stays with the main character Cora throughout the story, and Homegoing transitions through characters over a long period of time. The reason I would recommend Homegoing, especially for a white audience (I am white), is because I was constantly left wanting, wondering what happened to ____ as the the story progressed. But that's the whole point though. White generations have had their stories told and endings documented, and for the most part if you want to find out your genealogy you can do so. The stories of black generations for so long went unfinished. People would literally disappear without a trace. It's profound and devastating. And what I took away from this (and Underground Railroad, and The Fire this Time, and others like it) is that as a white person I will never understand the plight of descendants of African slaves, but it makes me self-aware of my own white privilege (which in the case of Homegoing is the fact that I can trace my ancestral heritage... without a prevalence of unthinkable violence). I think in a book group you couldn't go wrong with either of the two I've read. (less)

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Average rating 4.24  · 
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 ·  8,059 ratings  ·  1,350 reviews

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Angela M
Jun 25, 2017 rated it really liked it

There was something about this title that drew me to read the description and then after reading that this was about apartheid in South Africa I decided that I'd take a chance on this debut novel because what did I really know about it? As it turns out, while I didn't know the specifics of the Soweto Uprising which becomes the event in this story that is instrumental in bringing the two main characters together, the treatment of black people sounded all too sadly familiar as I thought about the
Diane S ☔
Aug 09, 2017 rated it liked it
A book of unbearable loss, grief, sad and yet for the most part beautiful as well. South Africa apartheid, the Soweto uprising and a nine year old white girl caught up in the terror, as well as a Nineteen year old black girl who wants to fight for the cause.

This book is another that presented me with a conundrum. Loved the character of Robin, she provides most of the humor in her young innocence. Humor mixed with sadness as she has lost both her parents to murder on the night of the uprising. S
Jan 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️ This one gets all the hearts/stars! What a story!

This novel is set in Apartheid South Africa during the turbulent times of the Soweto Uprising. The time and setting play as pivotal a role in the unfolding of the story as the characters do. You are immersed in the prejudice, racism, tragedy and heartbreaking challenges of the time period.

Beauty is a mother desperate to find and save her daughter, Nomsa, who has become caught up in the protests at Soweto. Robin is a young white girl wh

3.5 Stars

“Since June the 16th when South African troops and police opened fire on a peaceful school children’s demonstration, the white government has presided over the largest massacre of its black population since South Africa came into existence. The school boy who led that day’s protest was 19 year old Tsietsi Mashinini.”
BBC World Service:
The Day Apartheid Died – Soweto Uprising

The story that runs through the many layers of this story is set in Ap
The Hook - The author herself hands down. I attended a weekend event called Booktopia at one of the best independent bookstores, Northshire, in Manchester, VT. I was looking forward to meeting and hear speak, Chloe Benjamin, author of The Immortalists,one of my favorite books of 2018. Imagine my disappointment when she had to cancel due to illness. The author, taking her place, Bianca Marais. Bianca Marais, never heard of her. Oh, but was I in for a treat. Ms. Marais turned out to be one of the ...more
Dec 01, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016-reads
Hum if You Don't Know the Words is a novel set in 1975-76 South Africa, with the Soweto Uprising as the linchpin that brings the two main characters together and sets in motion the events of the novel. While the writing is fairly strong overall, I would only rate this 2.5 stars (rounded down to be an "it was ok" overall rating) because one of the perspectives is far superior to the other, and the ending seemed implausible and somewhat inauthentic, which changed my opinion from a solid 3 star to ...more
Dec 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
As I read Hum If You Don’t Know The Words, I cried in my bed, laughed on the subway and nodded in agreement in the passport-office lounge.

I often wished I could pause and tell someone – anyone nearby – about what I was reading at that particular moment. There were so many beautiful passages. Marais’ language is perfect; it is accessible and at the same time, rich. My top contender for favourite line in the book is: “… tears are neither black nor white; they are the quicksilver of our emotional
Charmaine Shepherd
Jan 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
There are some good books that you read once and pass on but occasionally you find one which you can read over and over. I have reread this book 3 times and each time I gain a little more from it. This has to be one of my favourite books of all times and each time I read it, I love it more and more.

The imagery throughout the book is powerful and the author uses language so skillfully that there are passages that I have marked and keep going back to.
One of my favourites is:
Some good-byes are as
Jennifer Blankfein
Dec 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Full review is up on Loved this book!

Hum If You Don’t Know The Words is one of my current favorite debuts! In 1976 apartheid South Africa where racism was a way of life, we meet Robin, a 9 yr old white girl who was daughter to a miner and his wife. Robin’s father did not always treat blacks fairly and, tragically, both parents were murdered, leaving the little girl alone. Then we meet Beauty, a 50 year old, educated, black, single mother of 3; 2 teenage boy
A suspenseful family drama that turns into a thriller. The novel is set in 1976 in South Africa. After her parents are murdered, Robin, a 9 yr old child, is sent to Johannesburg to live with her only relative, her deceased mother’s wild, carefree, single sister Edith, who never in her wildest dreams banked on, or ever wanted to a child. Working as an airline stewardess further complicates the situation.
In the second story, Beauty is on the hunt for her 17 yr old daughter who has joined the revol
I despair that we are all becoming murderers, white and black alike, and that we will never be able to wipe this blood from our hands. I pray that I am wrong.

I loved these characters - Beauty and Robin yes, but also the rest of the cast - Edith, Victor and Morris. The amazing sense of humor throughout provided a much needed lighter side to the story. The writing is beautiful and honest. Written in alternating chapters, Beauty's centered and wise narration balances beautifully with Robin's capric
Dorie  - Cats&Books :)
Jul 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
What a wonderful surprise this book was! The title and cover attracted me to the book and that combined with some great reviews from Goodreads friends made me anxious to read it. I was granted an ARC from the publisher through Netgalley.

I was a mother with young children at the time of apartheid and though I of course knew what going on in South Africa I didn’t at that time dig deeper and/or read much about it, there just wasn’t time. The book takes place in the mid-1970’s.

This book is about a
Sep 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  (Review from the author)
I've read this book more than a dozen times. Probably closer to three dozen times. And I have to say... I think it's not without its charm ;-)

This review from Boswell Book Company is one of my favourites:

"It is better than (The Help or The Secret Life of Bees) because it has a lot of sensitivity reading and is aware of what the moment is," Goldin says. "This is not a white savior narrative, this is about two people, and if anyone makes mistakes, it is the little girl."

(The five star review is me
Sonja Arlow

3 1/2 stars

Just before starting this book I thought that the publishers really should have released this book on 16 June, which is Youth Day in South Africa, commemorating the Soweto Uprising. However now that I am done I realise that the book didn’t really focus on this event, but mostly used it as a point of reference for the story.

There are two narrators, Beauty, a Xhosa school teacher who comes to Johannesburg looking for her daughter who participated in the Soweto protests. She later finds
Mar 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: release-2017
A TRUE GEM! Highly recommend!

A beautifully written novel about apartheid — tragedy. racism + injustice. survival.
I love that magically somehow the author’s writing is entertaining and beautiful while speaking on this subject.

Set in 1970’s apartheid-era South Africa.. this is the story of Robin Conrad, a 10 year old white child and Beauty Mbali, a black mother whom (after the Soweto student uprising) meet under extreme circumstance + loss. They face heartbreaking challenges while seeking answers
Sep 02, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
[3.4] Set in South Africa, the story of a 10 year old white girl and an Xhosa school teacher is excellent at times. I was engrossed in Beauty's search for her daughter and appreciated learning about the Soweto uprising. Robin is a less convincing character - her voice fluctuated from adult to child and I felt detached from her. The ending is nicely wrapped up but too improbable to be comforting.

What I would have loved to read is a novel with the voices of mother and daughter - Beauty and Nomsa.
Kevin Kilmartin
Jan 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Every now and again, a book comes along and crawls under your skin, burrows into your heart and hibernates with you for weeks. This was one of those books for me. This stunning debut novel by South African-born author Bianca Marais is set in South Africa, during the devastating Apartheid regime. Expertly narrated through the perspectives of two characters from different worlds, the story unfolds with lightning pace and is brought to life with heart-wrenching emotion. Marais perfectly captures a ...more
Jul 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
"Night settles swiftly. If you are vigilant, and not prone to distractions, you can almost feel the very moment daylight slips through your fingers and leaves you clutching the inky sap that is the sub-Saharan night. It is a sharp exhalation at the closing of day, a sigh of relief." That is South Africa. Unfortunately, South Africa could also be described during Apartheid as: "There is a river of blood in the street and the children are floating in it. They lie in unnatural shapes, limbs bent at ...more
Shannon A
Jan 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Finished in a day. A beautiful woven story full of tenderness, suspense and quick-wit that will have you on the edge of tears one moment and dabbing them away from laughter the next. A refreshing bright and thoughtful debut.
Aug 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: to-read-and-own
I’m humming because I have no words. This book is simply amazing - just pick it up.
Jan 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
It's been quite a while since I developed a crush for a book like I did with Marais' debut. Probably not since The Help, or Little Bee, or Secret Life of Bees... Hum If You Don't Know the Words was just the reminder I needed that in the midst of hate and chaos, simple acts of love and kindness at the personal level will turn the tide. How relevant and reassuring given the times we find ourselves in today.

The characters are moving, their arcs of transformation beautifully crafted from beginning t
Dec 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Just finished "HUM IF YOU DON'T KNOW THE WORDS" and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Loved the title; how many times have I heard that growing up in a church choir and music classes at school? And, for the book where language played a huge role, it had a special meaning.
The introduction to Robin and Beauty in the first 2 chapters captivated this reader. Robin in C 1 reminded me of Scout in To Kill a Mocking Bird, but she quickly became herself. The author does a remarkable job of painting portraits of h
I had the pleasure of meeting Bianca Marais at a book event I attended in Vermont. She was a fill in author as one of the others had to cancel due to illness. She was a wonderful addition & her story & her book where captivating.

The book is told in 2 voices, one being Robin, a nine year old privileged, sheltered white child who lives in Johannesburg with her family....she is precocious & at this young age so is only exposed to the life her family lives & only knows what she hears & sees in her s
Three things I loved about this book:
1. The cover design- absolutely in love with it.
2. The title- I love a good book title and this one really speaks to me and how I try to approach life.
3. Where it was set- in South Africa. I have a fascination with this country so reading a story set there.

As you can see, I really wanted to love this book but it felt short in certain areas for me. The characters Beauty and Robin were very colourful. I loved how the author portrayed them as strong and brave
Jun 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
A book about love and loss in Apartheid South Africa. On the day of the Soweto Uprising, a protest by black students which ignites racial conflict in Johannesburg, Robin Conrad a nine year old white girl loses both her parents and Beauty Mbali a Xhosa woman from a nearby rural area learns that her daughter Nomsa one of the young students is missing.
Fate will bring these two together in one household where they will form an unlikely bond as they are forced to look beyond their differences in an
Jo Ann
May 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I love historical fiction that grabs me and doesn't let go until I have found out more about the true history I have been reading...this book did just that, and hasn't let go. Even though I've read Nelson Mandela's biography, this brought apartheid in South Africa right in my face, and I am still goggling about what's going on there, about the uprising in Soweto, etc. The author, Bianca Marais, was a fill-in for an ill author at Booktopia in Manchester, Vermont, week before last, and she hooked ...more
I attended a book event in Vermont earlier this month and one of the authors to speak was supposed to be Chloe Benjamin author of The Immortalists. Last minute she cancelled due to illness and Bianca Marais took her place. I'm so very glad she did!!! This book was amazing, the characters of Robin and Beauty are so special and I hated to finish this book. I read for pleasure but I also read to learn about our world. I enjoy learning through Historical Fiction. South Africa in 1976 is a place I ne ...more
Jul 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: review-copies
What a beautiful and heart-wrenching story! This book is set in Apartheid-Era South Africa and follows two characters whose paths should never have crossed, but due to tragic circumstances they end up becoming some of the most important people in each other's lives. I can't believe this is a debut book! I hope there's a second book planned, because I need more Robin and Beauty in my life! (And I need to learn more South African history!)

Thanks, Putnam, for the Advanced Copy!
Jenna | JennaStopReading
Aug 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I don't even know that I have the words to properly describe how beautiful this book is. I'm so speechless that I am using a thesaurus to think of the best words possible to illustrate it. Here are a 5 reasons why this book blew me away and received 5 stars.
Hum If You Don't Know the Words is an example of story telling at its finest. Two POV's can stress me out, but this one was stitched together so seamlessly that I never felt confused or defeated.
The characters were flawed but lovable.
Renee (itsbooktalk)
Jul 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
You can find all my reviews at

There are three things that really drew me to this novel....the cover, especially the colors, the title, and the first sentence of the blurb mentioning The Help. You see, I absolutely loved The Help, so I hit the request button as fast as possible on Netgalley and hoped for the best. I was thrilled to get this the day before it published and I immediately dropped all my other reads and started this one. I have to say, I've fallen victim to this m
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Bianca Marais holds a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies where she now teaches creative writing.

Before becoming an author, she started a corporate training company and volunteered with Cotlands, where she assisted care workers in Soweto with providing aid for HIV/AIDS orphans and their caregivers.

She champions the Own Voices movement in he

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“I didn’t know what to say in a world where people were hated and attacked for not being the right color, not speaking the right language, not worshipping the right god or not loving the right people; a world where hatred was the common language, and bricks, the only words.” 7 likes
“I don't know this song. They haven't taught me it to us at school."
" When in doubt, just do what I do, Robs. Hum if you don't know the words”
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