Published July 2017 by Viking Books
Genre: Literary Fiction
My Rating: 4/5 Stars
The very first thing that struck me about this book is that it reads like a memoir. It was so open and honest, and it felt so real that I did a couple of double-checks to verify that it was, in fact, a work of fiction. And it is fiction, although I have to wonder how much of the author’s own life experiences she drew on for the writing of this novel.
We follow the story of Thandi, the daughter of a South African woman and a American black man. Early on in the novel, she expresses her feelings of being out of place. She isn’t white, but yet she finds herself unaccepted by blacks as well. To her South African family, she’s not considered black, to her American friends she’s “not a real black person.” And yet she is isn’t white either. She explains this as a feeling of “rootlessness,” and we see this idea come up again and again as we follow her throughout her life.
The story’s main focus is on the loss of Thandi’s mother to cancer. It is a meditation on loss, on “what we lose” when we lose someone close to us. Even as she matures and grows into adulthood, the hole left by Thandi’s mother remains, and she recognizes that it will always be there.
The story is told in tiny vignettes, not really chapters. Some of these scenes or episodes are a few pages long, others are just a few lines. As a result, I found myself flying through this rather short book. The vignettes jump around, connecting various moments of Thandi’s life, even as they happen out of chronological order. I think it was this format, along with the open and honest voice, that made me continually think that this was a memoir rather than a novel. It was difficult at first to get my bearings with it, to keep track of the jumps in time, but by the end I certainly could see why Clemmons chose to format and structure the novel this way. It reads as if the narrator is looking back on her life, analyzing what it was like to lose her mother and all the different aspects of her life that loss impacted. By the end I really felt like I had a sense of Thandi as a person, of her struggles and her coming-of-age.
My biggest complaint about this novel is that I felt like it tried to do too much. As I read, I had this sense that we were checking off boxes of important social issues, making sure to briefly touch on all the big ones… Race, illness, sexuality, drugs, abortion… Although I see the importance of talking about all of these topics, and felt like Clemmons talked about them well for the most part, it was a little too much. It was trying too hard to talk about everything, and for me, that ended up being distracting. On the one hand, I can understand that someone in Thandi’s position would experience all these things. On the other, in a novel this brief, it needed to stay focused more on the issues that were really central to its plot.
Though this complaint was something that irritated me a bit throughout the book, overall I found What We Lost to be a touching and well-written story. It didn’t wow me quite as much as I was hoping, but when it was over I was sad to say goodbye to Thandi and was glad to have felt such a connection with her and her life.