I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless. You may be able to pass in mainstream society, appearing acceptable to others, even desired. But in reality you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe. Even while you’re out in public, feeling fine and free, inside you cannot shake the feeling of rootlessness. Others may envy you, but this masks the fact that at night, there is nowhere safe for you, no place to call your own.
This is a tiny book – I don’t know the word count, but it is surely barely more than a novella – and it contains short, punchy chapters that cover a broad range of issues, disjointed narration, and strange jumps in time. But, despite its size, it hit me really hard.
It’s difficult to know which aspect to start with. Clemmons covers so many themes, including but not limited to love, marriage, race (particularly being mixed race), motherhood, apartheid in South Africa, modern day Johannesburg, and abortion. Thandi leads us through all these things, both with her personal experiences and secondhand observations.
What We Lose is the complete opposite of a slow, gradual book that leads up to a bigger picture. Every chapter hits fast and hard, leaving a lasting impression. The writing is succinct and powerful, offering tidbits filled with truth on human nature in almost every sentence.
But I have not talked about the main story, really, behind everything else I’ve mentioned. At its heart, this novel is about the kind of deep grief that pervades every part of your life. Thandi is so lost without her mother that her grief becomes a part of everything. The effect of filling a novel about grief with so many important themes – as noted: race, marriage, apartheid, etc. – is the realisation of grief’s all-encompassing nature. Not only is it forever in the background of Thandi’s personal life; it is forever in the background of everything.
I especially love this quote:
“Oftentimes I find myself, when we are fighting over the bills, or when he chews his food too loudly or laughs at the wrong time during a film, asking not whether I am happy, but whether my mother would approve of him.”
What We Lose broke my heart several times. It’s a powerful book about many important things but, of course, what affected me most was the loss of someone who is so vital to a person’s life. How do you go on when your anchor, your constant, isn’t there anymore? I don’t know. I dread the day when I find out.