- If You Want to Make God Laugh by Bianca Marais (Putnam) July 16, 2019
- In 40 words or less: At the start of Mandela’s presidency, South Africa’s changes are seen through the lives of estranged white sisters and a black teenager. Living in a community wrestling with conflicts of old and new, the women confront secrets that define them.
- Genre: Fiction
- Locale: South Africa
- Time: 1994
- In her second novel, Bianca Marais once again uses a defining moment in South Africa’s history as the backdrop for her story.
If You Want to Make God Laugh is told in three voices – Ruth, a fading socialite; Delilah, Ruth’s sister who returns from decades as a nurse in the wild; and Zodwa, a teenage girl with dreams of educating herself to be a part of the New South Africa.
After the breakup of her marriage, Ruth returns to the family home to lick her wounds and figure her next move. Out of the blue her sister, Delilah, appears, having received a letter that a gunshot has left someone dear to her in very critical condition. Zodwa fails in ending an unexpected pregnancy, endangering her prospects for an education, and dashing the hopes of her mother who is herself facing serious health challenges.
Laugh is a novel of three women each taking charge of her own life within the realities of the “new” South Africa. In this novel, politics are less a player than the periodic conflicts the women face in dealing with those seeking to wrest back the power and prestige of the Apartheid days. This is also the period when AIDS became rampant in South Africa, with misinformation, superstition, and prejudices. Bigotry, denial, and a profound lack of medical resources and support for patients and families created a far larger crisis for a country undergoing political and social upheaval.
Bianca Marais is a wonderful storyteller, clearly distinguishing her characters and their voices. To help frame her stories, she paints a full picture of the setting so the reader can visualize the space or location without any sense of being bogged down with details.
As an early reader of both of Bianca Marais’s novels, I’ve had the opportunity to take them in, unencumbered by the opinions of others. Hum If You Don’t Know the Words (review here) sent me searching for more on the Soweto uprising. Even those generally well-informed, had little access at the time to on the ground reporting. “Seeing” the events through the eyes of the characters gives a different perspective on history.
For me, Laugh is a more universal story, colored by the historic changes in South Africa. It is a novel of finding oneself, creating family, and forgiveness. The issues Ruth, Delilah, and Zodwz face are also very contemporary – sexual abuse, militant white nationalism, the AIDS crisis, and women needing to reclaim their lives from trauma. In both books, Bianca’s love of the country of her birth shines through.
While each stands on its own, Hum definitely begat Laugh, with connections from one to the other. It is reassuring to see beloved characters return, if briefly, and know in fiction, as in life, there is influence from one generation to the next.