What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons (debut)
Release Date: July 11, 2017
Length: 224 pages
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A Bit of Backstory
Single Sentence Summary
A daughter muses on the loss of her mother and what it means to live without her.
From the Publisher
“Raised in Pennsylvania, Thandi views the world of her mother’s childhood in Johannesburg as both impossibly distant and ever present. She is an outsider wherever she goes, caught between being black and white, American and not. She tries to connect these dislocated pieces of her life, and as her mother succumbs to cancer, Thandi searches for an anchor—someone, or something, to love.”
- So much hype about this book. It’s on countless “Best of…” lists.
- I just finished another book set in Johannesburg and What We Lose also has a Johannesburg connection.
- Always interested in debuts.
What Worked For Me
- Memoir feel – Though What We Lose is not a memoir, Clemmons did lose her own mother to breast cancer. THE major theme in the story is Thandi creating a life for herself after losing her mother to breast cancer. For that part of the book, it felt like the line between fact and fiction was very thin. It was also where the book was at its strongest.
- Beautiful tribute – In its essence What We Lose is a story of grief, the grief of losing a mother too soon. Clemmons beautiful words played tribute to Thandi’s mother, and in doing so to her own, and to all great mothers, as well.
“And when I tried to speak only pain came. The pain was exponential. Because as much as I cried, she could not comfort me, and this fact only multiplied my pain. I realized that this would be life; to figure out how to live without her hand on my back; her soft accented English telling me Everything will be all right, Thandi. This was the paradox: How would I ever heal from losing the person who healed me? The question was so enormous that I could see only my entire life, everything I know, filling it.”
Thandi, attempted to do just that: to use the whole of her life to fill the void left when she lost her mother.
- Sense of irony – Throughout the book were ironic idiosyncratic bits that helped to give the story depth. In one instance Thandi was given a pamphlet from hospice entitled “What We Lose: A Support Guide.” The advice, both true and obvious, made the pain even more real. Clemmons also shared instances of Thandi not ever feeling like she truly belonged.
“I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless.”
And, though Thandi loved her mother’s South African home, the country secretly terrified her.
- Vignette format – Clemmons writes in what might best be called snippets or vignettes. Some bits are long, others just paragraphs, or even sentences. She leaves one theme/one time and returns to it again later, leaving it up to the reader to organize her story. This obviously is a style that many people like, but I am not a fan. I might have liked Clemmons’s debut more if I had not had to do so much of the work.
- Political passes – Interspersed with Thandi’s life were vignettes of a more social/political nature that seemed unnecessary and added nothing to her own story. The time might have been better spent focusing more on her mother’s background, which I’d have loved to know more about.
The Final Assessment
With so much hype surrounding What We Lose, the debut had very high expectations surrounding it and for me, it just didn’t get there. I could name eight to ten debuts I’ve liked more this year. I appreciate the poignant tribute to a much-loved mother and the exploration of finding a life without her. Unfortunately, the format was such a distraction that the story itself lost much its glow. Grade: C
If you liked this book you might also enjoy:
- Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong – Another debut using a vignette type format, this focuses on the loss of a father as he falls deeper and deeper into Alzheimer’s. (my review)
- Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett – An entire family struggles with grief after losing the heart of their family. (my review)
- Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kruger – A 13-year old boy faces both his own and his family’s grief when his older sister disappears.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher (via NetGalley) in exchange for my honest review.
Disclosure: There are Amazon Associate links included within this post.