Reviewed by Jed Cruz
IF YOU WANT TO MAKE GOD LAUGH
By Bianca Marais
448 pages. G.P. Putnam’s Sons
In the opening moments of If You Want to Make God Laugh, a young woman hikes for half a day to meet with a medicine woman in a remote village. She wants an abortion that may or may not work. In Zaire, an aid worker abruptly leaves her orphanage after receiving a letter that someone she cares about is dying. In Cape Town, South Africa, an aging semi-celebrity prepares to commit suicide — not the kind that kills you, but the kind that’s just enough to fail, but still get some attention.
It’s not a bad introduction to what could be regarded as a fairly standard drama. What elevates this novel is the time and place in which it is set. Apartheid has just ended in South Africa, and the 1994 election — the one that Nelson Mandela is fated to win — is looming close as the story begins. The AIDS epidemic is in full swing. Bianca Marais paints a vivid and sobering picture of a country in transition: hope and fear in equal amounts, and extreme poverty on the part of the nation’s black population. The political situation never directly interferes with the personal lives of the three main characters, but it is there to create context for how they behave and react towards their circumstances.
If You Want to Make God Laugh tells several personal stories. Zodwa’s pregnancy is central to the plot, and it is also a problem for her as a black teenage girl living in a squatter camp with her very sick mother. Delilah and Ruth are estranged sisters who are making their own transition from being middle-aged to just plain old. Delilah has some secret history with a dying priest. Ruth’s husband is divorcing her, and she is very upset about it.
Very much a feminist novel, If You Want to Make God Laugh is unique not only in its setting, but in the fact that the main challenges that the protagonists face all relate to their gender in some way. Their motivations are clear, and their personalities are distinct. They are neither totally passive or overly aggressive. They are believable characters, and they interact with each other in believable ways.
One minor flaw of the novel is pacing: it starts out very slowly and in great detail, and key events happen sparsely until the midpoint of the book, when the plot actually gets rolling. Up until this point, the novel is interesting for the unique politics and culture of its setting. The second half builds on this and begins firing revelation after revelation, until at some point it’s delivering at a rate of one shocking reveal per chapter.
It also ends satisfyingly, although the final moments are rushed and lacking in detail in contrast to the novel’s plodding start. At least one major twist will be predictable to fans of the genre, although this doesn’t really detract from the novel’s strengths, which are its setting and its characters. Also, the title is just begging to be referenced within the text itself, and it handles this with some finesse. Read it and see.
Any fans of drama will find this a good read, but this novel will also be a good choice for anyone interested in recent history, race-related conflict, or just South Africa in general. There’s even a glossary at the end that explains several concepts that some readers might not be familiar with. In spite of its flaws, If You Want to Make God Laugh is ultimately a worthy read.
Limited copies of If You Want to Make God Laugh is available at select Fully Booked branches. Email us to reserve a copy.
Jed is one of the co-founders of Popsicle Games, a game development studio based in the Philippines. He has worked as an animator, web designer, and college instructor, but he continues to dream of writing for a living. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @jrevita.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]