Review: What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

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What We Lose, Zinzi Clemmons’ moving debut novel about identity, adulthood and sexuality, centers around Thandi, an African American woman raised in Pennsylvania by a South African mother and an American father. Hers is a quest for belonging: she is never American enough or Black enough to feel entirely at home either in the United States or with her family in South Africa. Her mother’s death while she’s in college sends Thandi and her father into a tailspin of takeout meals and depression, though they are determined to push back against grief in their own ways.

Thandi quickly marries and has a child, despite her best friend’s misgivings, then slowly realizes her newly established family can’t quash her grief forever. When the heartache over her mother’s death resurfaces, Thandi must learn to truly confront her sorrow. What We Lose expands beyond the boundaries of a traditional narrative: Told in spare chapters that occasionally include photographs, hand drawings and charts, the book reads like stepping inside someone else’s memory — one thought sparks another, reflections jump between time, history and geographies. The result is a powerful work that demonstrates, through form and content, how pervasive grief can be: how it can permeate seemingly undetected into every piece of our consciousness until it suddenly threatens to swallow us whole.

Her straightforward, intensely personal prose blossoms inside this unusual format. What We Lose may be Clemmons’ first book, but it’s clear she’s a powerful new voice who is just getting started.