Happy publication day to Bianca Marais! If You Want To Make God Laugh hits bookstores today. It’s been getting well-deserved pre-publication buzz and excellent reviews. There is no whiff of a sophomore slump in Bianca’s second novel.
I loved the characters in Bianca’s first novel, Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. I was hoping for a sequel, but am glad she didn’t write one (yet?) because then I wouldn’t have met Zodwa, Delilah, and Ruth this summer. They are such fantastic characters and this is a unique and inspiring story. It is painful to read at times but so full of heart and hope.
Speaking of pain, I got a big chunk of the book read last weekend when I was in the ER for about five hours. I fell off a step ladder while painting. Rib contusion, nothing broken. Ouch. Bianca’s excellent storytelling helped take my mind off the pain.
Back to the book
If You Want to Make God Laugh is set in South Africa, Bianca’s homeland, between 1993-1997, at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The story is told in alternating chapters between Zodwa, Delilah, and Ruth. Zodwa is a young black woman living in a squatters camp with her ailing mother. Delilah and Ruth are white, middle-aged sisters who unexpectedly come back together at the family farm after being estranged most of their lives.
Stop reading if you don’t want to know anything more about the book. One of the threads that brings the main characters together in this story is rape. One woman is raped for expressing lesbian desire, another is raped by a man in a position of authority, and one is thought to be sexually available to any man because she works as a stripper.
I commend Bianca for making the issue of lesbian homophobia, or lesbophophia, so central to her story. Lesbians have long dealt with the threat or reality of being raped by men to “fix” or punish them. Lesbian life and literature is rife with such violence. If You Want to Make God Laugh is the first mainstream novel that I’ve come across that explores this issue with any depth.
How many of our stories begin that way, I wondered, with violence rather than with love? How many of our lives are ruined because some man somewhere decided he would lay claim to something that wasn’t his?
The rapes in this story are in no way gratuitous or over the top. Bianca shows how the emotional, spiritual, and physical damage of rape becomes part of the fabric of these character’s lives. Rape isn’t a single event but a trauma with long-term, life-altering repercussions.
The heart of the story is about relationships — between family members, lovers, friends, employees, employers, community members, and there’s the love of a good dog, too. Motherhood is also explored in a multitude of ways, both the beauty and the heartbreak.
There is also racism, alcoholism, religious abuse, and the horror of living with HIV/AIDS in those early days when so much was unknown and people were shunned or attacked by their communities. In the end, however, I was left with a sense of hope that some people can change. That society can change, however slowly. That even though life isn’t easy and we don’t all get to live the lives we imaged, we don’t have to remain powerless victims.
Author on Tour Now
- Title: If You Want to Make God Laugh
- Author: Bianca Marais. Originally from South Africa, Bianca now lives in Canada.
- Publisher: Putnam, July 16, 2019
- Source: Requested review copy
- Bottom line: A heartfelt story with vivid characters and a unique storyline. Painful to read at times but full of heart and hope.