Initially, I was not sure how I would feel about Bianca Marais’ new novel, “If You Want to Make God Laugh.” I found something lacking when I tried to read her début a few years ago, but either her latest effort is miles better than her first novel was, or I may have to reassess my earlier opinion.
I am so glad I had the opportunity to give her work another chance, and I am sure that if you pick up this novel, you will not regret it.
The novel follows three unforgettable women—two white, one black—in a racially divided South Africa. Nelson Mandela has just come to power, ending the Apartheid government, and Zodwa, who lives in a slum with her ailing mother, is pregnant by a rape with a baby she does not initially want to keep. Despite an effort early in the novel to abort the child, Zodwa carries the baby to term.
Meanwhile, Ruth and Delilah are two elderly sisters who have both fallen on hard times and have come back home to heal. Both sisters carry resentment toward and misconceptions about the other and must learn to come to terms with each other. They are in the midst of their own domestic squabbles when a black baby and a dog, both of unknown origin, are left on their doorstep.
Ruth, who has always wanted children, quickly falls in love with the child, but Delilah, for reasons initially unclear, is more hesitant. Things become even more complex when the baby, called Mandla, tests positive for HIV.
As you can probably guess, this baby brings the three women together in surprising and beautiful ways, as Marais explores themes like motherhood and family. Stylistically, this novel is humble. Its strength does not lie in its beautiful turns of phrase, but rather in its characters and plot. All of Marais’ protagonists are flawed and sympathetic, and her choice to set the novel just after Mandela’s election means that the plot has plenty of tension.
Above all, though, Marais uses the story to explore myriad social issues, somehow managing to talk compassionately about race, class, gender, LGBTQ issues and the AIDS epidemic, while also telling a harrowing and beautiful tale.
Her poignant social criticism and her total lack of cynicism mix to form a novel that shines on every page.