If You Want to Make God Laugh by Bianca Marais
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
Publication date: July 16, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Cultural, Fiction, Literary, Social Issues
Delilah hasn’t been home in forty years, but when she arrives on her family’s farm in South Africa it’s to find her sister Ruth drunk on the couch and getting ready to sell the place. The sisters are polar opposites. Literally. Delilah left the family at 17 to become a nun and when that didn’t happen devoted herself to working in an orphanage in Zaire. Ruth became famous as a stripper and accrued all the trappings of celebrity, including a love of alcohol and multiple husbands. Now events have conspired to bring them together, including the appearance of a black baby boy on their doorstep. It’s 1994 and Nelson Mandela has just been elected president. The country’s turmoil is reflected in three women’s lives in Bianca Marais’s novel, If You Want to Make God Laugh.
The third woman in If You Want to Make God Laugh, is hardly that, because she’s only 18. Her name is Zodwa and she lives in the slums surrounding Johannesburg with her dying mother. She’s pregnant after being raped, ending all hopes of her getting an education or even a good job. Her baby is the one left with Ruth and Delilah. He was taken there by her mother, who dies before being able to tell her anything about what she’s done. It’s only after months of desperate searching that Zodwa finds her son, Mandla. With no options and knowing she can’t care for a child, Zodwa keeps her secret and signs on as Ruth’s maid in order to be close to her son.
Each of the women in If You Want begins the novel burdened with secrets and pain. Delilah comes back to South Africa to see a dying priest, Ruth drinks to forget the life she can’t have, and Zodwa believes she is an unnatural creature deserving of all the abuse heaped on her. Dee and Zodwa are complicated women with lives that have been shaped by events over which they had no control, but initially, Ruth feels like a toss-off character. I don’t often comment on character development in my reviews, but Marais’s work with Ruth is so well done it’s notable. She goes from being a bored, spoiled, benign racist—a one-note character—to a woman of real depth. Marais doesn’t overplay this growth, but nurtures it organically. In the same way, she shows, with painful clarity, how little agency any of them have had over their own destinies.
There is a lot going on in If You Want to Make God Laugh, but even though I’m known to complain about plot overload, it’s not the case here. Again, it’s Marais’s ability to share outsized situations, but in a way that doesn’t feel forced. South Africa at this time was rife with tension due to Mandela’s election and the burgeoning horror of AIDS. The ignorance surrounding the disease is appalling (men refusing to use condoms because they believe they cause the disease) and leads to an epidemic of deaths in women and children. Marais is pointed in her observations of this and the virulent, violent racism that permeate the novel. She takes the macro climate of South Africa and shrinks it to the microcosm of three women, all doing their best with what they’ve been given. They should be hardened and closed off, but Dee, Ruth, and Zodwa expand with their resilience and determination to do the right thing. Poignant and gripping reading.
When it comes to these kinds of prejudices you don’t need to be one of the idiots actively shouting your racism from the rooftops; silence and inertia are collusion, and I will be complicit no longer.