In ‘If You Want to Make God Laugh,’ Bianca Marais Explores the Power of Motherhood

In which the innocent love and strength of a child binds three unsuspecting women.

if you want to make god laugh bianca marais book review
If You Want to Make God Laugh Book Cover If You Want to Make God Laugh
Bianca Marais
Historical Fiction
July 16, 2019

In a squatter camp on the outskirts of Johannesburg, seventeen-year-old Zodwa lives in desperate poverty, under the shadowy threat of a civil war and a growing AIDS epidemic. Eight months pregnant, Zodwa carefully guards secrets that jeopardize her life.

Across the country, wealthy socialite Ruth appears to have everything her heart desires, but it's what she can't have that leads to her breakdown. Meanwhile, in Zaire, a disgraced former nun, Delilah, grapples with a past that refuses to stay buried. When these personal crises send both middle-aged women back to their rural hometown to lick their wounds, the discovery of an abandoned newborn baby upends everything, challenging their lifelong beliefs about race, motherhood, and the power of the past.

As the mystery surrounding the infant grows, the complicated lives of Zodwa, Ruth, and Delilah become inextricably linked. What follows is a mesmerizing look at family and identity that asks: How far will the human heart go to protect itself and the ones it loves?

Through three disparate characters, Bianca Marais‘ If You Want to Make God Laugh explores the agency of women (or lack thereof) in post-apartheid South Africa — a tumultuous political climate full of deception and racism, spurred on by a neo-Nazi separatist group and the onset of the AIDS epidemic. In alternating chapters spanning a period of four years (and styles — shifting between first- and third-person narration), Marais weaves violence with love through the power of motherhood when an HIV positive child changes the trajectory of relationships on a failed avocado farm in Magaliesburg, South Africa.

Haunted by memories of the past, Delilah, Ruth, and Zodwa find common ground in violence — a harrowing concept to be sure — but one that offers an unexpected connection and hope in Mandla, the beacon that inspires, unites and paves the way for reconciliation and change. Tackling the issue of what it means to be a mother, all three women battle with hidden scars, each stripped of their choice to become mothers. Zodwa and Delilah suffer at the hands of social injustice, wherein Marais tackles issues of corruption in the church and homophobia through corrective rape, while Ruth suffers from another issue entirely — multiple unexplained miscarriages, resulting in an addiction to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Troubled by love, Zodwa, Ruth, and Delilah cross paths when Zodwa is torn from her child. Though desperate to rid herself of her unborn child after facing violence for her sexuality, Zodwa’s decision to raise her son is ripped away from her when her ailing mother takes matters into her own hands and delivers a baby boy to a Magaliesburg farm in the middle of the night. The boy, later named Mandla, becomes a beacon of hope that unites the three women after they cross paths in the most unexpected of reunions. Through Mandla, Marais breaks down the walls of family, trust, love, and racism — rebuilding them through unexpected connections, unforeseen conflicts, and violence that unite the unlikely trio in a family of their own.

Mandla is the planet around which they all orbit. They are his satellites. They couldn’t wrench themselves free of the gravity he exerts even if they wanted to.

– excerpt from Bianca Marais’ If You Want to Make God Laugh

As each woman comes to terms with her past as a result of Mandla’s influence, shocking revelations come to the forefront, but hope prevails even in the darkest of times as each moves to better the lives they have. Moving past the pain of violence, Ruth, Delilah, and Zodwa find hope in the future as Mandla thrives despite the danger of his illness (and the threats of neo-Nazi supremacists). Familial bonds and romantic relationships are reconciled, values are reshaped, and hope prevails as each woman embraces her own sense of agency to improve her circumstance, be it through overcoming fears or breaking down society’s patriarchal expectations. In the end, in the words of Marais: “Sometimes all we need is to be seen in order to blossom.”
Melissa Ratcliff
the authorMelissa Ratcliff
Contributing Editor
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.