Book Buzz: Hum if You Don’t Know the Words

Like other bookworms, I fall in love over and over again, and happily so.

What does it take for a book to capture my heart? It begins with the mechanics. Figuratively speaking, a book has to be firing on all cylinders to get my heart pumping. Eloquent writing, an emotionally riveting plot and complex, memorable characters, are essential for starters. A dash of humor helps, too.

If a book should achieve the above, but go even higher by leaving me with a deeper understanding of human nature, plus have me yearning for more, I am over the moon.

I was in a state of reading euphoria with Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, an exceptional coming of age story and debut novel from Bianca Marais.

Book Buzz: Hum if You Don't Know the Words

Hum if You Don’t Know the Words

Set in apartheid South Africa in 1976, the year of the Soweto Uprising, the story is narrated by two very different South Africans: a white child suddenly orphaned and a black woman desperate to find her missing daughter.

Robin is a plucky nine year-old white girl raised in privilege with all the comforts therein. Her parents employ Mabel, a black housekeeper to do the cleaning, cooking and caregiving. Robin loves Mabel but sees her as a servant, not an equal, because this is what she has been taught.

I cringed at the dismissive way Mabel was spoken to and treated by her employers, but this was the norm at the time. In pre-apartheid society all black people, even those who lived with you, were second class.


Robin’s life changes dramatically when her parents are brutally murdered. She and Mabel are taken to the police station. After being detained for a short while, Mabel is released and flees, without a backward glance. Robin is rescued by her aunt, and life as she knew it has been erased.

Her aunt Edith never wanted children, and is an unwilling guardian. Self-involved and irresponsible, she can not manage to give Robin the stability a child deserves.

At the same time, Beauty, a black schoolteacher, has been notified that her anti-apartheid activist daughter is in danger. Leaving the rest of the family behind in their rural village, Beauty travels to Johannesburg to search for her beloved Nomsa. She needs to find employment in order to have the required credentials to stay there. When she learns that Edith needs a nanny, she applies for the position.

That is how two very different lives are connected by tragedy.

Through Beauty, Robin’s universe is expanded. She learns about systemic racism and starts to question the values she had been taught. As she develops relationships with other “forbidden” segments of society — the Jewish family in their apartment building, Edith’s gay friends, black neighbors — she sees that people are people, and our commonalities are greater than our differences, and the definition of family can expand beyond mother and father.

As Beauty continues to look for her daughter, she learns about her capacity for patience, bravery, and mothering.

Obliterating racism starts with us.

When Robin is asked by a black child why whites hate blacks, she responds:

“Maybe it’s just that everyone needs someone to hate, and it’s easier to treat people terribly if you tell yourself they’re nothing like you.”

Finding our similarities while accepting our differences.

That doesn’t sound insurmountable, does it?


One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected. USA addresses only, please.


I received a copy of Hum If You Don’t Know the Words from Putnam for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.


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53 Thoughts on “Book Buzz: Hum if You Don’t Know the Words

  1. Sounds like a wonderful book. My daughter spent 6 months volunteering in SA, where there are still black ghettos adjacent to white villages. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Oh my goodness what a powerful sounding book, I am going to have to try and get hold of a copy myself I think as it sounds like a book I would really enjoy.

  3. Jason on July 11, 2017 at 11:31 am said:

    I felt immersed in the story for the whole time. Feels like I wont be disappointed. Thankyou for the review.

  4. I have to admit that I skipped the spoiler alert section because you have me really wanting to read Hum if You Don’t Know the Words. I love books that keep me interested the whole time I’m reading, and this one looks like it will do just that!

  5. Sounds compelling, especially today. We need to keep looking at ourselves for the truth, don’t we?

    • hbludman on July 12, 2017 at 8:20 am said:

      It is SO relevant to what’s going on in the world today, Cathy.

  6. A book I probably need to read because I totally live by the title of this book!

  7. Sounds like a fantastic book! Really good review! I am getting to the end of my reading list so could add some new titles xx corinne

  8. linda smith on July 11, 2017 at 2:35 pm said:

    Thanks for a great review! Will definitely check this book out!

  9. Maureen @ Wisconsin Mommy on July 11, 2017 at 3:27 pm said:

    Okay – I’m going to fess up and admit that I stopped reading your post after the “spoiler alert” warning. But only because you made me want to read the book and I didn’t want to ruin the ending!!

  10. Jessica Taylor on July 11, 2017 at 4:43 pm said:

    This sounds like an awesome book! I need to check it out after I am done with my current selection!

  11. Hum If You Don’t Know the Words sounds like an interesting book for readers who like that genre. I had not heard of author Bianca Marais before your post!

  12. What a great title to the book. Now I need a pool and a chair to enjoy this book.

  13. Oh fun, now I need to add this to my list. I’m forever reading and this sounds like an intriguing and thought provoking book.

  14. Helene this excerpt sounds good. Keep writing,it’s definitely worth the read.

  15. Sounds like a wonderful story and I love how they bring two people together through tragedy. It’s always nice to have a feel-good story.

  16. Mei Redillas on July 12, 2017 at 3:21 am said:

    I’m not a bookworm, but when it comes to novel and the story is great? I won’t stop reading until I get hungry or needs to pee. I wish to have a copy of this one. πŸ™‚

  17. I skipped the spoiler alert. I hate spoilers and I am more than grateful for the little warning. So many book reviews ruin it for me. Even though apartheid is a horrible topic, I love books with real backgrounds so I am going to add this to my summer reading list.

  18. OMG I LOVE the title of this book. I am totally adding this to my reading list.

  19. Oh man if I lived in the US I would totally sign up for the giveaway, as I was enthralled by the narrative. I wonder why they were shot and while Apartheid South Africa is never a pleasant topic, we need to see how far we have come since but also how much progress we still need to make.

    • hbludman on July 12, 2017 at 8:24 am said:

      I apologize, Ana — it’s the publisher’s request due to the shipping charges.

  20. Blair villanueva on July 12, 2017 at 8:07 am said:

    Sounds interesting. I need a new book this weekend. Will check thia online πŸ™‚

  21. Sounds like an interesting book. I have not picked up a book in quite awhile. I may just look more into this book.

  22. The tittle of the book is very intriguing

  23. Always looking for novels that have good character development. This one sounds like a winner.

  24. Seems like this book will definitely leave an impact on everybody who will read it. I need to get back into paper books, these days a lot of my reading is on the screen

  25. The book title sounds intriguing! But I felt sad the Robin lost her parents at the beginning of the story, which I can relate.

  26. Blair villanueva on July 12, 2017 at 10:13 pm said:

    This is an inteesting read. Hope it is also available on ebook version πŸ™‚

  27. Oh I wanted to know more! I was drawn from the first paragraph! I think I need to get this book

  28. This sounds like a very intriguing novel! Definitely up my alley. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a book along these lines, but the type of premise is something I always find thought-provoking (and therefore enjoyable and addictive)!

  29. This book seems to have a very interesting plot and a lot of things for people to learn in life. We definitely need to treat everyone as equals in this day and age.

  30. I am looking for new books to read this summer. I love African literature and studied apartheid very closely in college. Would definitely love to read this!

  31. I agree that to get rid of racism begins with our attitudes and actions towards others. I can only imagine what it was like in South Africa in the time of apartheid. That would have been crazy and sad to witness.

  32. I love the title of the book and it sounds like a book everyone in my family would enjoy reading! I do have a long list of amazing books I want to read and I am including this one!

  33. Elizabeth O on July 13, 2017 at 11:44 am said:

    Apartheid might be long gone but its brutal legacy remains embedded in the psyche of its people. This sounds interesting and I might pick up a copy. Yes, the work must begin in our hearts and homes.

  34. What a great review. Thank you πŸ™‚ I even checked out the spoilers!

  35. What a beautiful and interesting storyline. I’ve been looking for a new summer read and this is perfect. Thanks for sharing your review!

  36. I’ll be honest: I skipped your spoiler alert. I’d much rather read the book myself and find out what happens! I am fascinated (and heartbroken) by how people treat others who are different from them, so I think I’ll enjoy this book a lot.

    • hbludman on July 20, 2017 at 7:37 pm said:

      I’m glad you skipped it, Missy! And I hope you get to read and enjoy the book.

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