“What We Lose” by Zinzi Clemmons is billed as a novel about a young African- American woman coming of age that also happens to touch upon family, race and country. And while these elements are present in the book, it’s really a story about mothers and daughters and the “other things” that are left behind when loss and grief define you.
First, some quick notes on the book itself. Clemmons style is a bit random. The chapters are short. Subject matter and timeline jump around as if these were individual vignettes put together around a few central themes. It makes for a quick read with parts much more emotionally charged than I would have thought since the style is stark and concise. Cold even. But there is plenty of beauty in those quick sentences and blunt words.Thandi is our heroine, a young African- American woman with an American father and a South African mother. Her family is wealthy but that is just one way she feels different than other people of color.
“I’ve often thought that being a lightskinned black woman is like being a welldressed 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.”
Thandi gives us many observations on this aspect of race and privilege, especially when she travels to their summer home just outside Johannesburg in South Africa. But the prose was distant and didn’t resonate. I know how it affected Thandi but I can’t say I felt how it affected Thandi. I was challenged the same way with the coming of age chapters. Her ill-advised decisions are described harshly as if she is daring us to judge and hate her. And some of the things she does are truly cringe-worthy but I end up being more puzzled by her actions than anything else.
But for all those moments of ambiguity, the chapters revolving around Thandi and her mom are clear and present. The motherdaughter aspect of this story completely transcends all the other plotlines.
We know early on that Thandi’s mom has died but it’s not until about half way through that we learn the how, why and when. And while Thandi tells us how her mom influenced her when alive, we (or Thandi) don’t understand what that influence meant until she is gone. Maybe that is why every time Thandi talks about her mom it is always tinged with melancholy. When her mom dies (the chapters devoted to this process are powerful and almost too painful to read), Thandi stumbles around trying to make sense of the world and herself. The short chapters are a relief here – we all need to regroup with Thandi in coping with her loss.
Thandi’s coming of age really begins with the passing of her mom. She tries filling the void with a relationship and becomes pregnant. Time passes – she breaks up with the man, adjusts to the baby and inevitably moves past the grief.
“How pernicious these little things called memories are. They barbed me once, but now that I no longer have many of them, I am devastated.”
Thandi realizes that while grief fades away, her mom’s absence still remains. You can sense a new coming of age episode here, one that will have to be explored in another book. “What We Lose” ends with Thandi still living in the void created by her mother’s passing. Not the happiest of endings but completely appropriate for this story.
There are some funky little things to this book, like graphs and one-sentence chapters. And during Thandi’s pregnancy, Clemmons takes a few chapters talk about Madikizela-Mandela seemingly out of the clear blue sky (Fascinating and disturbing stuff). But if you are interested in reading an up-and-coming author, I would recommend this slender novel. Sometimes the best barometer of what a new generation thinks is reading what they have to say. And in the case of “What We Lose,” I can say that no matter your age, mom’s matter.
What new authors are you looking to read this year? Have you set up any reading goals? Thrillers, Mysteries and Romance aren’t normally on my bookshelf so if you have great suggestions in these genres I’m all ears! And I’d love to be a fly-on-the-wall in your book club.
Thanks for your time. And happy reading!
Lynn Alexander is a recently published author and long-time book, food, cat and college football lover (Go Green!). Her career journey started in upstate New York, writing and recording commercials for radio. She moved to Venice, Florida to manage a restaurant which led her to Naples and Marco in 2002, where she currently books weddings and events at the Marco Beach Ocean Resort. Alexander is a Leadership Marco 2015 alum which fed her passion for history and learning. A butterfly at parties but a loner at heart, she loves nothing more than baking yummy desserts then retreating to a quiet corner to read.