25th Apr 2012
Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron
Winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, the novel is set in Rwanda in the ten years before and five years after the genocide of 1994, following the fortunes of Nkuba Jean Patrick, who dreams of representing Rwanda at the Olympics.
While the rest of the country is becoming increasingly aware of tensions between the Hutus and the Tutsis, Jean Patrick is concentrating solely on running and qualifying for international events.
He falls in love with Bea, a fellow student from a politically active Hutu family and when the president Habyarimana is assassinated, Jean Patrick, a Tutsi, is forced to run, not for fast times, but for his life.
The violence and tension of the novel are set against a beautiful backdrop of African rural life, of strong family ties and the feel of red earth under your feet.
Jean Patrick’s naivety and childlike belief that everything will be ok, is contrasted starkly with gruesome details of one ofthe most bloodthirsty ethnic conflicts of recent years where between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people lost their lives within the space of just 100 days.
The novel is a fast read and gives the reader a good insight into the story of the genocide but I found the imagery so clichéd that by the time the genocide started, I didn’t really care what happened to the characters.
Throughout the first half of the book, Benaron shows the reader pictures designed to build tension for the horror to come. As Jean Patrick looks back at his family through the bus window, “A crack in the glass split them precisely in half”.
Elsewhere he thinks, “It was foolish to think anyone would want to hurt him, and he wished everyone would stop worrying over him.” But rather than heighten anticipation of the trauma to come, I just found such images so simplistic as to insult the reader’s intelligence.
Benaron includes some interesting factual details about the origins of the conflict and of the two identities. Jean Patrick’s father believed that the Belgian colonists had differentiated Hutu from Tutsi according to physical characteristics but that they were in fact one people with one founding myth.
Even if you are familiar with stories of ethnic conflict such as that in the former Yugoslavia, the sheer scale of the killing and the fact that it was perpetrated with machetes and broken glass rather than guns and bombs is still shocking. But to me even these facts lose their impact because of the too obvious style.
Running the Rift is Benaron’s first full novel. It is well researched and successfully weaves the historical narrative into the personal stories of the characters. Published by last month by Oneworld, you can buy it in paperback for £7.55 or for Kindle for £7.17.
Recommended for: Anyone with an interest in this conflict, in Africa or for anyone who wants a fast-paced adventure with a bit of historical depth to it.
Other recommended reading: For more by Naomi Benaron, try her short story collection, Love Letters from a Fat Man. For true stories from Rwanda, try Life Laid Bare by Jean Hatzfield or for another novel set in Rwanda try Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin.