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What We Lose

Review

What We Lose

WHAT WE LOSE is a tender and vicious exploration of identity and grief. Thandi is light-skinned and raised in America. She struggles to navigate the dynamics of the darker skin of her family and friends, as well as her homeland of Johannesburg, which is not a familiar landscape for her. The disparate parts of her identity fit together untidily, but forcefully, when her beloved mother succumbs to cancer.

This likely is not the book you expect. WHAT WE LOSE defies many conventions and definitions by choice and by nature. Grief is a concise word for a limitless sprawl of experiences, and identity is far, far from black and white. The novel is raw and ragged in places, a collection of vignettes that meditate across time. It is interspersed with photographs, rooting it in our world, and drawings and graphs that root it in Thandi’s. At one point, Thandi tries to graph her emotions. The result is an asymptotic spiral.

"It’s a quick read, and for all its heavy subject matter, please don’t think it will weigh you down. Clemmons has managed to confront these complex issues and explore them with grace and understanding."

The novel is linear, but allows for shifts in memory and projection that flow as naturally in the text as they do through the mind. There is a highly commendable amount of skill in making such an intricate task work so seemingly effortlessly, and author Zinzi Clemmons does. Thandi’s character is multifaceted but never fragmented. To me she is always likable, but may not be to every reader, which is not a detriment. The way she as an individual navigates her world reads as inescapably human, and it’s beautiful.

Thandi meets a man. She wants to be someone’s everything, to find someone she can complete, who will make her feel complete, when her self is shattered by grief and unevenness. Peter is not, by many accounts, a bad man.

I am not a black woman, but I am a light-skinned, mixed-race daughter of immigrants who is dealing with recent mourning. I think WHAT WE LOSE may have important resonance for some light-skinned black women, some mixed-race black women, some children of immigrants, and those of us who may not know exactly how to navigate grief as it lives in our bodies. That is to say, this book elevates certain narratives that should be elevated, and does so magnificently. It is also a sharp, exquisitely rendered novel that may appeal to any reader.

Thandi thinks of privilege, presentation, and her light skin but irrevocable blackness. She is a child of diaspora, a carrier of legacy she perhaps has not inherited in full, a legacy she may or may not pass on. She tries to understand her desires. I found myself caring about her deeply. I want to talk to her about my own struggles with identity and belonging, the echoes of grief, and the shifting sense of self. I felt that, through this novel, I could. It’s a quick read, and for all its heavy subject matter, please don’t think it will weigh you down. Clemmons has managed to confront these complex issues and explore them with grace and understanding. WHAT WE LOSE has no clean answers, but I felt buoyed by it, nonetheless.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on July 14, 2017

What We Lose
by Zinzi Clemmons

  • Publication Date: July 11, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Viking
  • ISBN-10: 0735221715
  • ISBN-13: 9780735221710