Review: What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

y648So beautifully written, so compassionate in its observation and understanding of grief, race, migration and womanhood in contemporary America, What We Lose is a tremendous first novel by Zinzi Clemmons. I’m still reeling from this poetic unravelling of what it means to lose a mother, and desperate determination to find one’s place in the world.

Thandi, born and raised in the United States, has always lived in the shadow of her mother’s South African upbringing. The disparity between Thandi’s life and her mothers is both gaping and ever present. She feels dislocated, an outsider wherever she goes, caught between being black and white, and American and not. As she deals with these feelings — or at least lives through her confusion — her mother succumbs to cancer. With her anchor gone, Thandi searches for something else — someone else — to love, something to fulfil the void and sustain her. But even in death, her mother’s shadow casts a long, dark shade.

What We Lose is told in a slightly disjointed style, with regular flashes forwards and backwards in time providing glimpses into Thandi’s life and repeated encounters with grief. It’s a stylistic choice that works, however; Clemmons never loses sight of her novel’s core narrative thread, so it never tangles, or causes confusion. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is brilliantly structured, beautifully written and profoundly sad, not in a way that breaks your heart, but just burdens you with a powerful melancholy. And not just because of the emotional impact of losing a parent; also because of the horrible isolation Thandi feels, both in her hometown of Pennsylvania and when she visits Johannesburg, because wherever she goes, she never belongs. One wonders if this cycle will ever end.

Humane and artful, What We Lose is a powerhouse of a novel, one that would’ve slipped by me if not for the recommendation of a customer and voracious reader at Potts Point Bookshop.

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