Ugh. Let’s do this.
So I just finished a book and I absolutely hated it. I gave it two stars on Goodreads because technically, it’s fine. Like, the writing is fine. The characters are fine. And I can see how many people would read this book and enjoy it, but I found it annoying and at times even offensive. That book is If You Want to Make God Laugh by Bianca Marais.
Really quickly, this is the story of three women in South Africa in the mid-1990s. Apartheid has ended but there is still a lot of racial strife and a lot of violence. Nelson Mandela is elected president during the course of the plot. And AIDS is well on its way to ravaging the people of Africa. Two of our main characters are white sisters: Ruth and Delilah. Ruth is an outspoken, devil-may-care, self-centered type with a surprisingly good heart while Delilah is a quiet, considerate, self-sacrificing type with a surprisingly strong dose of cynicism. These sisters are estranged from one another until circumstances find them both back in their family home. Ruth is there following a botched suicide attempt that she claims was merely a cry for attention (while trying to convince her soon-to-be-ex-husband not to leave her). Shockingly, that ploy doesn’t work. Delilah is there because the son she gave up for adoption many years ago (and which her family knows nothing about) is in a coma.
Their lives are further interrupted by our third protagonist, Zodwa, who has been raped and is now pregnant. Zodwa is also a lesbian in a time and culture where homosexuality is not allowed. So she’s got a lot on her plate and is obviously conflicted about impending motherhood. Her mother leaves the baby on the doorstep of Ruth and Delilah, then conveniently dies so that Zodwa will have no idea what happened to her baby and will spend a good chunk of the book looking for him.
Interestingly, I posted this book on Twitter as my #FridayReads and stated this: “Happy #FridayReads to a book that is determined to make me cry: If You Want to Make God Laugh, by Bianca Marais (publishing July 16!).” The author, Bianca Marais, promptly responded to me with this: “That’s the best feedback ever, Greg. Thank you.” Which really confused me because that is NOT necessarily a compliment—and in fact, while I didn’t exactly intend it as an insult, it was also DEFINITELY not intended as a compliment. And I think that’s very indicative of the problem with this book.
Consider this: Bianca Marais thinks that a book being determined to make you cry is the best feedback ever. That reveals a lot about the overly melodramatic structure of this novel and what Marais is trying to do here. Now full disclosure: I was flustered by her mistake and didn’t want to insult her, and for some reason, I felt compelled to respond, so I thanked her for writing the book. I have since deleted my response because I feel embarrassed by it, but whatever. Incidentally, I also feel like a dumdum because someone mentioned Marais’ previous book, Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, in a video recently and I commented to call THIS book beautiful—and in my defense, at the time, this book could have been beautiful. My irritation with this book built over time.
And by the way, Marais wrote a review of her own book on Goodreads and gave it five stars, which seems doubly gross to me.
Anyway, the point is, at every turn during the course of this book, Marais actively chooses to plot things in a way that will cause maximum emotional distress—to the point that it stops feeling like people are behaving in natural ways or reacting to things in any way that makes sense. I can’t tell you how many times I thought to myself “why is X reacting this way,” only to discover that Marais it’s all part of Marais’ ploy to play a long game with your tears.
My other big complaint about this book is the chapter size. Marais writes in small bite-sized chapters—I call it the James Patterson school of writing (which is not intended as an insult, by the way). The thing I don’t like is that Marais, like Patterson, tends to end her chapters on a bit of a cliffhanger to lure the reader forward. In and of itself, that could be fine–but Marais doesn’t offer resolution on those cliffhangers right away. In one instance, Zodwa had written another character a deeply personal letter that never reached its intended recipient. A ways into the novel, that other character reveals to Zodwa that she found that devastating letter, leading to a chapter break. The perspective shifts back to either Ruth or Delilah, which is fine since that’s the way the book is structured, but when we get back to Zodwa it’s a day later and she’s met up with that person again and not only are they not talking about that letter, they haven’t discussed it at all and will not for a little while. So we’re to assume what here? That character revealed that she found the letter and she and Zodwa just stopped talking and parted company until we the reader could come back to them? It makes absolutely no sense for so much time to pass before they discuss what happened.
Now we go into spoiler territory, because I can’t really talk about why I was offended by this book without revealing plot details. So if you might want to read this book at some point, you can stop right now and just know that I didn’t like it. At all.
Seriously, you’ve been warned.
Okay, for those of you still here, Ruth adopts Zodwa’s baby after it shows up on their doorstep even though he is HIV positive and in Africa in 1994 that’s a death sentence–he probably won’t even live beyond two years of age. And you guessed it, that means Zodwa is also HIV positive (although she doesn’t know it) after that rape that got her pregnant. But sticking to the point: Ruth is the only maternal figure this baby has known since he was removed from Zodwa just after being born. Motherhood turns out not to come naturally to Ruth, who struggles to get Mandla to stop crying or to soothe him. That’s fine–motherhood is tough, after all–and Marais does plenty of work to show that Ruth barges into things without really thinking about their realities first. But when Zodwa arrives on the scene, Mandla inexplicably loves her.
Now that is ridiculous in and of itself, because Zodwa shows up out of the blue one day (having finally gotten a tip about her baby’s location) and Ruth just lets her into their property even though they’ve been getting death threats and are afraid for their safety and the safety of their newly adopted baby. Zodwa approaches the house and finds Mandla inexplicably left alone in a room and even more inexplicably choking to death (did I mention the insanely melodramatic plotting that defies belief in this book??). Zodwa slaps the crap out of Mandla’s back and saves his life. Now instead of being afraid of the strange lady who just slapped him around, Mandla immediately warms up to Zodwa.
I’m sorry, what now? Are we supposed to believe this baby is rational enough to understand that she hurt him in order to save him? Or that he somehow knows this stranger is his mother and he’s just been waiting for her? Seems so, because he refuses to call Ruth Mama when she’s teaching him to talk but then UNPROMPTED, he calls Zodwa Mama when they’re alone together.
Now, I don’t think Marais means anything offensive with this, but the implication is this: the adoptive mother’s love is somehow less worthy than the biological mother’s love. Understand: I am an adoptive/foster father, so I’m particularly primed to hate this message. Granted, the circumstances are different, but I can still hate the implication.
You know what else is bullshit? Ruth is so impressed that Zodwa saves Mandla’s life that SHE OFFERS HER A JOB AS A MAID AND ZODWA ACCEPTS OH MY GOD WHY. Why would this happen? Because again: Marais is playing a long game with your tears, and drawing out this ludicrous situation will not only create tension, it will make things much more devastating to the reader to insert Zodwa into the household of Ruth and Delilah and have her hide her actual identity and also have the revelation that Mandla is HIV positive be all the more devastating to her.
Further insulting the situation, when Zodwa’s deception is finally revealed, she and Ruth have a heart to heart in which they both agree that Mandla can only have one mother and that it should be Zodwa. I’m sorry, what?
Again, I don’t think Marais is trying to do anything more sinister than make her reader cry by forcing one character to make a sacrifice while the other makes an empowering declaration for what belongs to her, but the implications are fucked up. Kids can have more than one mother. Ask anyone who grew up with a mother and a stepmother. Or my foster son, who has had several mother figures in his life. Ask him again if he feels like having two foster fathers (since I am married to another man) makes one or both of us invalid.
Would it be so unreasonable for Ruth and Zodwa, who got along splendidly before the deception was revealed, to agree to raise Mandla together? Especially since Ruth can afford better healthcare for him? And especially since as far as they all know the situation is awfully temporary given that the life expectancy of both Mandla and Zodwa is depressingly low? What the actual fuck, Bianca Marais?
The ending of this book is pretty completely fucked up and DESPERATE to make the reader cry, so I’ll leave it at this: let’s talk about the mean behind the death threats that made Ruth and Delilah fear for their lives, shall we? So two brothers in the town where they grew up want to buy their land so they can open a game preserve where tourists can hunt lions as a shorthand for the reader to know these guys are total shitheads. Making it worse, they belong to a racist and dangerous political group and they only get angrier when the white ladies who won’t sell them their land adopt an HIV positive black baby.
But none of that race/political drama simmering in the background actually matters because in the end the brothers go to jail and everything is just fine. Nevermind the rest of their friends or political party who ALSO wanted Ruth and Delilah to suffer, because two guys going to jail stops an entire racist ideology dead in its tracks. At least, it does in Marais’ flawed narrative.
I can’t with this book anymore. I don’t want to think about it anymore. Have you read it? Do you disagree? If so, tell me why you think I’m crazy. Alternately, tell me a book you found grossly offensive and let’s achieve catharsis together.