The themes explored in What We Lose—race, identity, family, and loss—are familiar, but their presentation here feels entirely fresh and new ... made up of poetic vignettes that combine to create an unforgettable portrait of a young woman’s search for identity ... beautiful poignant prose makes What We Lose the kind of novel you might find yourself marking up as you underline a sentence on every other page. Clemmons’s prose is sharp, and though the book is slim, it’s a rich novel with more depth and innovation than many novels double its length.
In overt and subtle ways, the novel sets out to do important work: to explore the contours of race, class and gender and the legacy of apartheid; and it succeeds best when exploring these ideas through the delicately drawn and profoundly moving portrait it offers of a relationship between mother and daughter ... Clemmons is ambitious with her narrative form: the fragments of the novel make associative leaps from narrated scene to excerpts from academic studies, graphs of Thandi’s depression, song lyrics, and musings on subjects as diverse as the death of the photographer Kevin Carter and studies of cancer rates in communities of people of colour. But the novel is best when it simply tells the story of Thandi’s mother’s struggle with cancer, and it is here that Clemmons’s restrained prose reaches its full potential ... At times, Clemmons’s restrained prose, so powerful when the narrative lens is up close on Thandi’s mother, distances us from characters the reader longs to know more about. Yet What We Lose never strays too far from its central concern: how to live after loss, how to be an orphan, exploring lost expectations, dreams that go unrealised, relationships that seem never fully in our grasp.
The story not only thematically and structurally changes the usual story of loss, but also highlights a hardened subject matter with new and original attention ... Clemmons is incredibly successful in relating emotion to the reader without overly justifying it. The craved 'aha!' moment of acceptance is hard to find and even harder to understand. Overwhelmed by thoughts of finding love or simply a feeling that can resemble it, Thandi is often left without resolve, her journey creating a deeper void to fill and an unrelenting tear that will never be fixed ... Although much of the novel excels in never being over-explanatory—specifically by describing without telling—there are brief sections that spell out the feeling Clemmons is trying to capture more so than others. It does not work, especially when so much of the story does well to avoid it ... With a subject that has been written about so often, What We Lose innovates the story of grief.
...a startling, poignant debut ... The arc sounds conventional enough, distinctive though the specifics may be. The book’s force comes as much from its form as from its content. Clemmons has been an outspoken proponent of experimental fiction and a critic of the ways in which the category is often presented as distinct from 'black writing' ... The resulting collage pulls you in and propels you onward, if not always forward, inviting you into Thandi’s world and her mind, which are both somewhat perplexing places ... Clemmons’s unusual exploration of filial grief occasionally feels like an evasion of grief. At the same time, Thandi’s odyssey is shot through with genuine sadness. Mourning evades prescriptions, this book reminds us. 'I have only persisted,' Thandi says. She manages to do that not because she thinks she should, but because she finds she can.
The book’s chapters are succinct, often shorter than a page; the sentences are concise and declarative. Non-fictional material like blog posts and news photos intersperse the story, as if this were an academic study rather than a novel. Thandi, a math tutor, illustrates her emotions with graphs and charts, and when she encounters events that cannot be tamed by logic she explains them to herself using the concept of the asymptote, a line that a curve continuously approaches but cannot reach ... When Thandi finds herself pregnant and unsure of how to proceed, the novel’s intellectual poise has been fatally undermined. This makes for anguished but rewarding reading. It’s bracing to find irruptions of passion shoot through the varnished prose like hairline cracks in porcelain. What We Lose finds itself when it accepts free fall, morphing from an arid work of assertion into a richly volatile study of grief, wonderment and love.
Zinzi Clemmons captures the dissonance of profound loss through her electric debut novel ... More than a story of a daughter’s grief for her mother, What We Lose sheds light on muddled historical memory as seen through the fog of loss. Born in the aftermath of apartheid, Thandi’s life demonstrates the varied ways in which one country’s history can be both known and utterly mysterious. Clemmons’ deft hand introduces cultural and national memories that many would prefer to leave in the past, a legacy that permeates the lives of those who will never forget.
...[a] spectacular debut ... Clemmons creates haunting authenticity by imbuing Thandi with autobiographical elements—parentage, life in Philadelphia, attending Columbia, her mother’s death—but through enhanced fiction, she pushes Thandi into global citizenry, shows her skin color to be a barometer of fraught relationships and race politics, explores mother-child bonds with brutal honesty, and even reveals cancer to be 'a disease of privilege' elevated with ribbons and campaigns. Clemmons performs an exceptional sleight of hand that is both affecting and illuminating.
Clemmons clearly is writing of what she knows firsthand, from the inside — a confluence of personal, sociological, historical, and medical experience. She tells protagonist Thandi’s story from both the perspective of a marginalized outsider and an insider … This spare, concentrated book is, like its protagonist, difficult, brave, and honest. The author, in her acknowledgement, accurately terms this ‘a weird little book.’ Yes, What We Lose is unusual. A novel, but really a hybrid genre: a fictionalized memoir; a heartfelt, heart-rending rant; an abstract of a longer thesis. Here, indeed, the personal is also very much political and sociological. And sprinkled throughout the pages are footnoted quotations from diverse sources: Nelson Mandela, Adrienne Rich, and others — like excerpts from a personal anthology.
...an honest, propulsive account of grief, interrogating the relationship among death, sex, motherhood, and culture. Written in compact episodes that collage autofiction with '90s rap lyrics, hand-drawn graphs, blog entries, and photographs, the novel pushes restlessly against its own boundaries—like Thandi herself. Clemmons manages to write with economy without ever making her book feel small, and with humor and frankness, so the novel is not overly steeped in grief. This is a big, brainy drama told by a fearless, funny young woman—part philosophy, part sociology, and part ghost story.