Book Review: Umbilical
Reviewed by Andrea Marks-Joseph
A riveting, high-stakes journey about a baby hidden and rescued from a plane crash thirty years ago
Umbilical alternates between several perspectives—characters whose family histories intersect at the point of rescuing a baby from a chartered plane crash that had no records of its boarding—and also between two timelines: present day, and thirty years ago. It spans various countries across the globe, including Botswana, Canada, South Africa, Tanzania, and the USA.
Author Jane Kay must be commended for making the reading experience of very specific timelines, new venues, and many characters absolutely seamless. Umbilical is never intimidating or overwhelming. This novel pulls you in from the first page, gripping you with difficult realities, and never lets you go.
Two elderly men who were involved in keeping a baby hidden thirty years ago are informed that the child (all grown up now, if it survived) is still in terrible danger. Ella and Werner—the children of these two strangers who briefly worked together for what they hoped was a good cause—have been asked to travel back to South Africa and retrace their fathers’ steps to find the child before the dangerous people get there first.
This is the kind of story you’ll have to sit up and lean forward to read. While it’s easy to follow and is filled with fascinating, realistic, relatable characters, it’s simply too intriguing, exciting, and thrilling to sit back and relax. The broad plot is about identifying the baby and the truth behind the plane crash: Was this a kidnapping, or truly protecting a child from harm? Why did their fathers go through all this effort to keep the secret even now? Where do they begin to look for the child, who may not even know their history? How will they protect themselves and the vulnerable people who are being threatened? But there’s so much additional depth in the political, emotional, and familial aspects that you’re never lacking in twists, turns, and motives to question.
The ensemble cast includes young Lerato, who fell for Peace Corps volunteer Edward when he came to work in her village. She was coerced by lawyers and nuns into giving up her baby to a convent, where she was kept for months and learned that her baby would be flown out of the country. Ruth is a mature, successful judge from Botswana who has recently been nominated for the prestigious International Criminal Court but is hesitant to declare certain information from her past which may put her loved ones at risk.
Then there are wealthy, powerful businessmen who are embarking on a large multinational deal that links their two huge companies and the Botswanan government. They plan to revolutionize the African pharmaceutical industry and create jobs for local people, empowering Black women in particular. While performing due diligence to ensure that this deal goes through without a hitch, these businessmen seem to be protecting secrets related to Ruth’s career. But what would their connection be, and could the location of a secret baby really be the reason behind the high-stakes, convoluted, dangerous moves they’re all taking to maintain secrecy?
Ella and Werner have no personal stakes in uncovering the truth, other than a sense of duty to follow their parents’ wishes. Ella is a talented musician who is reluctant to be on a mission that helps her selfish father. She’s aware that she’s one of the only people who can help find the missing child but finds relief in escaping to the joy and community of taking freelance gigs with a group of prominent musicians.
Werner was urgently tasked to help Ella by his grandfather, who raised him, and is now in the hospital recovering from a stroke that’s left his speech slurred and his body weak. Werner’s loyalty and love for his now-hospitalized and barely-verbal grandfather is his primary motivating factor to follow the winding path that Umbilical takes them on.
The problem is that when these now-elderly men created their plan to protect this baby, they created secrets so safe even they couldn’t access the full truth. So now that Ella and Werner have inherited this urgent need to find the child, it’s a lot more complicated to follow the leads. There’s also a fun, fascinating tension between the characters who are strangers, risking their personal safety for a cause they aren’t sure is even a real threat. It’s entertaining and exhilarating to watch them mistrust each other, unsure of how far to follow-through on the information they’ve been given, weary of potential exaggeration or manipulation.
As Umbilical unfolds from multiple perspectives—creating more drama and raising the stakes, while also generating suspicion against multiple characters—we also don’t know the truth. This is a book you’ll be updating your family and friends about as you read. It’s the perfect novel to bring on holiday trips and read together, because you will want to discuss every new piece of information as it happens.
These characters experience vehicle tampering, hotel room break-ins, solemn hospital visits to Werner’s grandfather, internationally intercepted love letters, and strained video calls to Ella’s father for information. There’s a rich tapestry of side-characters to meet along the way, each bringing new flavors, culture, and potential clues. It’s no exaggeration when I say that this novel constantly surprises its readers. When I realized who the grown-up child might be, I gasped, before I even knew I was doing it. Yet still, even after the point when my suspicions rose, there were at least five shocking twists in that reveal alone.
As a South African reader who knows most of the locations in this book intimately, I must praise Kay’s exceptional, authentic reflection of the country as it was and still is. The author balances the truth of our country’s racist past, the lasting effects of Apartheid, and vast inequality, alongside the joyous, eclectic culture that springs from the diversity of the “rainbow nation.”
Readers should be aware that content spanning memories, flashbacks, investigative dialogue, and present-day adventures features: discussions of murder and rape, racism, fatal car crashes, shaming a woman for giving her child up for adoption, a parent who has suffered immense brain damage and has lived in a medical facility for years as a result, and a violent hijacking attempt.
This novel will appeal to readers who are interested in: the contemporary South African societal landscape, political thrillers involving corrupt businessmen, and the escapades of amateur sleuths. If you enjoy Only Murders in the Building for the mysteries based in its location’s history and gradual uncovering of secrets from the protagonists’ childhoods, you’ll appreciate the surprisingly emotional quest our heroes find themselves on. In the same way Only Murders is a quirky, personality-filled love letter to the timelessness of New York, Umbilical is as vibrant, beautiful, welcoming, diverse, and justifiably wary of lingering political secrets and brutality as South Africans are today.
Umbilical comes to an incredibly satisfying, air-punch inspiring ending that’s filled with righteous justice. I’ll definitely be purchasing this book for friends, colleagues, and family members. Umbilical is the rare novel that will capture and hold the attention of people across a wide range of age, race, and genders—and so it’s an excellent recommendation to give as a gift.
Though it can easily be read in one sitting, this fiercely relevant story will prompt long nights of essential discussions about each of our roles in righting historical wrongs and confronting the prevailing results of systemic racism.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Mystery, Thriller & Suspense / International
Print Length: 386 pages
Thank you for reading Andrea Marks-Joseph’s book review of Umbilical by Jane Kay! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.