What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

Though mostly comprising of short chapters, some shorter than a page, What We Lose is a poignant novel that succeeds on many different levels: it captures the narrator’s inner feelings, it gives a crystal-clear understanding of her circumstances, and it provides us with insights into questions of love, race, illness, grief, and motherhood. Thandi, our narrator, is a light-skinned Black woman who although raised in America feels both close and not to South Africa, her mother’s country. Clemmons marries a coming-of-age story—self-fulfilment, love, friendships, career, finding a place to which you can fully belong—with a piercing commentary on race, class, cancer (providing sobering evidence showing the disproportionate death rate among Black people, regardless of class), gender, and love. The narrative hones in on Thandi’s grief over the death of her mother. She recalls those excruciating months in which her mother was bedridden and in atrocious pain. There are portions of the narrative that relate to the still ongoing aftermath of apartheid and Clemmons initiates some thoughtful discussion about South Africa’s history and current socioeconomic.
Clemmons prose is restrained yet startling for its preciseness. With just a few words Clemmons manages to explore with authenticity and nuance complex feelings and scenarios. It is not a happy tale, as it brings to the forefront some sad yet real truths. Still, here and there, we are given glimpses of hope and genuine love (especially between Thandi and her best friend). Part of me did wish that the novel could have been a bit longer but I also recognize that the ending did not feel abrupt nor hurried.

my rating: ★★★½

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