A Review: “What We Lose” by Zinzi Clemmons

I picked up this book while visiting Branson, Missouri last year. I mostly was drawn to it because of the beautiful cover art, but I’ve got to say that this book was just not my cup of tea. Written by Zinzi Clemmons, an American writer with South African roots, “What We Lose” is Clemmons’ debut novel and received stellar acclaim from the likes of The Guardian and New York Times. Of course, I didn’t know this when I bought the book, but I had seen it around and thought it would make an interesting read.

As much as I want to support black, female writers, this one missed the mark for me. The chapters were short vignettes that did not correspond and seemed thrown together, as if the author were recalling events from her own life and suddenly remembered something. This novel is fiction, but it seemed very much like a memoir. There were very odd scenes regarding main character Thandi’s sexuality. Maybe the author wrote it to reflect the main character’s brash personality? I honestly couldn’t tell if that was the idea or if it is just the way Clemmons writes. This novel reminded me very much of Rupi Kaur’s writing style, almost stream-of-consciousness.

Here is the book’s description:

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.

My Verdict: “What We Lose” by Zinzi Clemmons is Not Worth Reading (1 star)

Unsettling might be the perfect way to describe this book. From what I gathered, Thandi does not know who she is as a person with ties to South Africa and the US. She feels torn between her heritage and her American life — not fitting in either world — as a teenager and young adult. She is very fair-skinned and this seems to play a role in her identity and how she regards others as well as how she thinks they regard her. I say this because I am not sure whether Thandi’s point of view is accurate.

Thandi goes through a series of boyfriends and lovers who don’t treat her well. She describes sex in such a weird way, the only thing I could think was that the author really did not want us to like Thandi as a person. Here is one line I found disturbing, “When my lover and I f**k, we f**k with the fear of the world in us…We are f**king death right in the ass, and death loves it.” I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with whoever wrote the description for this book. This is not “exquisite” or “emotional” writing. Lines like this don’t allow the reader to have a better understanding of what is going on. That’s my complaint. It seems more like a way to grab the readers’ attention in an unnecessary, crass way. At one point, she casually mentions having a random threesome with a married couple she met online.

*Spoiler alert: Do not read past this point if you do not want to know what happens*

At some point during the book, Thandi learns that her mother has terminal cancer, and she and her father have to take care of her. They both go through dark times after the mother passes, but eventually, Thandi meets Peter. I honestly got him and her other boyfriends confused, but he seemed to be the one Thandi cared about the most. Thandi gets pregnant and considers terminating the pregnancy but then decides against it, and Peter acts like he’s OK with it until he flakes out on her and disappears for a while. They get back together though somehow and get married quickly. Thandi and Peter love their baby M, and I think Thandi sort of feels a connection to her own mother while raising her son. But she and Peter argue a lot since being married, and she cheats on him (also very randomly) on a trip for work. She tells Peter about her infidelity, and they get divorced. The end of the book leaves Thandi alone as a single mom trying to raise her son but not in an encouraging sort of way. I viewed it more as Thandi regretting her choices that got her to that point.

Sorry to basically retell the entire book! I think I ultimately did not like the writing style or the message the author was trying to convey. Has anyone else noticed this unsettling trend among new writers to convey young women as hypersexual, independent, and self-righteous?

If you’ve read this book let me know what you thought of it! As always, thanks for reading!

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