What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons | Review

What We Lose: A Novel Book Cover
What We Lose: A Novel Zinzi Clemmons Contemporary Fiction Penguin Books July 2017 eBook 238 Personal Library

From an author of rare, haunting power, a stunning novel about a young African-American woman coming of age—a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, family, and country.

Raised in Pennsylvania, Thandi views the world of her mother’s childhood in Johannesburg as both impossibly distant and ever present. She is an outsider wherever she goes, caught between being black and white, American and not. She tries to connect these dislocated pieces of her life, and as her mother succumbs to cancer, Thandi searches for an anchor—someone, or something, to love. 

In arresting and unsettling prose, we watch Thandi’s life unfold, from losing her mother and learning to live without the person who has most profoundly shaped her existence, to her own encounters with romance and unexpected motherhood. Through exquisite and emotional vignettes, Clemmons creates a stunning portrayal of what it means to choose to live, after loss. An elegiac distillation, at once intellectual and visceral, of a young woman’s understanding of absence and identity that spans continents and decades, What We Lose heralds the arrival of a virtuosic new voice in fiction.

Book descriptions are a tricky thing. They have to be brief enough to not give the whole book away. But descriptive enough to entice readers to pick them up. Book description assist readers in determining if a book is the right fit for them. They raise readers’ expectations, making readers hope the story promised in the description is actually what is between the cover of the book.

Sometimes the book description is right. Others times it’s wrong. And then there is the rare occasion when readers are perplexed. Reading the book description several times over wondering if they’re missing something. Not sure if the book they’re reading is the book what was promised. Or if maybe their expectations had just been too high.

What We Lost is the latter option.

There were several glances at the cover to make sure it was actually a work of fiction. It reads like an autobiography but the cover states novel. Which could have been a positive attribute in another novel but in What We Lose, it ended up being a negative.

The confusion is compounded by vignettes style of the novel. The decision to tell this story as vignettes leaves it feeling more like an outline for a novel rather than a complete story. Almost as if Clemmons ideas hadn’t been full flashed out and readers are left to feel in the blanks. Every section leaves readers wanting more, wanting something to add more substance to sections, whether the substance came from details, emotions, reflections, quite frankly anything.

The novel is actually easier to understand as multimedia journal entries since Clemmons included pictures, articles, and quotes from real-life events. These additional elements are supposed to do something for the readers and are unsuccessful. They’re added threads to the story that never get fully woven in and leave readers questioning their inclusion. At one point there is mention of Winnie Mandela and for a moment there is hope Thandi will for once have a moment of deep reflection about her relationship with her mother. But then nothing. There is a bunch of loose threads that don’t get weaved into the story.

The book description promise a story about a woman who feels dislocated coming to terms with her identity. Thandi’s mother is a coloured South African. Her father is a light-skinned Black American. The book description would have readers believe Thandi struggles to find her place in between those two different identities but this is not the case. It’s clear Thandi considers herself a coloured South African, even though she was born in America and has a Black American father. At one point she even refers to her and her cousins in South Africa thinking of Black Americans as “cool”. She seems to purposefully distance herself from Black Americans, admitting the only Black person in her social circle is a friend from childhood. Thandi’s identity is so solidified that readers need to remind themselves that Thandi is not an immigrant, especially when she uses words like “cupboard” instead of cabinet.

The biggest promise of the book description is Thandi struggling to come to terms with her mother’s death. And while Thandi grieves greatly when her mother loses her battle with cancer, her grief seems overly exaggerated. Which seems strange to type since this is a mother daughter relationship being discussed. But throughout the novel, readers a left looking for clues to a closest that explains Thandi’s inability to process her mother’s death. While the relationship would be described as turbulent there was more tension present than affection. Her mother seemed to be hyper-critical and strict, their relationship defined by those characteristics. There seems to be very little communication and closeness between mother and daughter once Thandi moves from her childhood home in Philly to New York. If Thandi’s reaction to her mother’s death had come from a place of regret, from losing the ability to repair her relationship with her mother than Thandi’s prolonged grief would’ve been understood. Instead, she seemed to linger in her sorrow just because she could, as if it gave her a purpose to live.

What We Lose had the skeleton of a great book, a tearjerker. But it wasn’t fleshed out. The story promised by the book description was nowhere to be found in the pages. Readers are left confused about what they read, what they should have gotten out of it. And ultimately how they feel about the story presented to them on the pages.

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