Zinzi Clemmons

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons reads more like a memoir than a novel. It consists of a series of vignettes told in the first-person point of view of Thandi, a young woman of mixed heritage.

Thandi’s mother is South African and her father is African American. Born and raised in America, Thandi has a foot in both countries, regularly visiting her mother’s homeland and family in Johannesburg while growing up and attending schools in the U.S. She feels estranged wherever she goes—“too black” in America and “too white” in Johannesburg. While grappling with her identity and notions of self-hood, she witnesses her mother’s physical decline as cancer ravages her body. Her mother’s death catapults Thandi into a period of extended mourning. Her feeling of being adrift leads to sexual promiscuity, drug experimentation, a pregnancy, marriage, divorce, and single parenthood.

The structure of the novel is unorthodox. There is no straightforward plot. The narrative unfolds in a seemingly haphazard sequence of events. The chapters vary in length from a few lines to several pages. They include anecdotes, vignettes, newspaper articles, pictures, graphs, and intimate reflections on Thandi’s life, her mother’s gradual decline, and her inability to come to terms with her mother’s death.

Thandi continues to feel her mother’s presence in every nook and cranny of her life long after her death. The pages are saturated with her overwhelming feeling of loss and her sporadic attempts to fill the gaping void that gnaws at her being. With the birth of her child, her time and energies are so consumed with care-giving that her mother’s presence no longer intrudes on her waking and sleeping hours to the same degree. She expresses profound regret that the memories of her mother have receded into the background of her life.

This is a poignant and compelling coming-of-age novel that explores the meaning of motherhood, the search for identity of children of mixed heritage, the interplay of racial and class dynamics in different cultures, and the impact of post-apartheid racism. Its predominant tone is one of a profound grief permeating every aspect of a life. How does one cope with feelings of rootlessness triggered by the loss of a loved one who served as a foundation for being and self-hood?

Clemmons packs a powerful, visceral punch in each chapter, never letting us lose sight of Thandi’s all-consuming grief and loneliness as she tries to piece together the disparate threads of her life. Each chapter is an elegy, a heart-wrenching lament for loss and for the struggle to find a foothold in shifting sand. Dotted throughout are lyrical and meditative sentences, giving one pause to reflect.

Highly recommended for its refreshingly unorthodox structure and for its compelling depiction of the raw emotions a young woman experiences at the death of her mother.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review