Thursday, February 2, 2012

book review: Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron

The backstory: Running the Rift won the 2010 Bellwether Prize. It's also this month's selection for Book Club (hosted by Jen at Devourer of Books and Nicole at Linus's Blanket).

The basics: Running the Rift is the story of Rwanda in the 1980's and 1990's, told mostly through the eyes of Jean Patrick. We meet Jean Patrick and his family when he is a young boy with a gift for running. Through Jean Patrick, Benaron explores the Tutsi/Hutu conflict over several years.

My thoughts: As I began to read this novel, I initially thought it was nice, but a little slow. As I read more, I realized I was reading it through the eyes of a modern person somewhat aware of recent Rwandan history. While it does seem slow if you have an idea of what is coming, I appreciated that Benaron began the novel in a place of relative normalcy for her characters.

For much of the novel, Jean Patrick comes off as optimistic (at best) or utterly naive (at worst). I think assessing him in those terms is far too limiting. Thinking of him as a character of this unprecedented time, it becomes much more muddled. Because the readers see the world through Jean Patrick's eyes, there are some clues we can pick up that he may not. Similarly though, there were some clues I was more alarmist than necessary. Even in times of atrocity and genocide, there were moments of grace.

Although I knew some about the recent Rwandan conflict, I realized I knew very little about the rest of its history:
“Be proud,” Uncle said. “Your heritage is the heritage of the mwamis, the Tutsi kings. If it weren’t for the Belgians and their meddling, we might still be ruled by the mwami today."
"Some were born here, some are the children of refugees, born in Uganda or Tanzania. Every time Hutu massacre Tutsi, more Tutsi flee the country. It wasn’t just in ’seventy-three, when our grandparents were killed. It started in ’fifty-nine with the first Hutu uprising when the mwami, King Kigeli the Fifth, fled. Then again in ’sixty-three and ’sixty-seven. No one wants to live in exile forever. And if you opened your eyes, you’d see it could happen again, is happening again.” He slapped the newspaper open and gave it to Jean Patrick."
“Ubwoko? It means ethnicity.” “Ah, Jean Patrick, you are mistaken. It was the Belgians who gave it this meaning. Before colonial days, the Kinyarwanda word ubwoko meant only clan. We had no word in our language for ethnicity.”
These bursts of historical knowledge enhanced the story, and I appreciate that Benaron established the characters first, the setting second, and third she brought in historical details. I learned a new vocabulary reading this novel, but I never forgot what a word meant or had trouble understanding the language of running or Rwanda. The slow builds, of character, setting, history, and action, made this tragic, haunting novel a very smooth read.

Favorite passage: "Your hope is the most beautiful and the saddest in the world."

The verdict: This novel is haunting. The slow exposition began to read almost like a thriller by the end. Jean Patrick is a character in fascinating times, but it was the supporting characters I was most enchanted with. At times I wished these characters could take a turn narrating, but ultimately, it took restraint to tell the story of a people and place through a single person trying to figure out what was happening.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: January 3, 2012
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Running the Rift from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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  1. I do want to read this one, but have to be in the right frame of mind when i do. Sounds so powerful.

  2. Beautiful review! I'll definitely be reading this one.

  3. There are times when I love a slower paced novel that anchors me in a setting that is so different from my world. Thank you for the wonderful review.

  4. I don't mind a slower pace as long as there is a purpose for it. Sounds like in this case, you need the slower pace to delve into the characters.

  5. I just got this book...good to know what kind of read it is, so I make sure to give it some time to grow/develop. Sounds good!

  6. Oooh, haunting! Haunting novels tend to be my faves. And to think, I wasn't sure if I should bother with this one. I said it! It's really what I thought. You've swayed me, Carrie.

  7. I just ordered this one from the library on audio, and I can't wait for it to get here. I have been reading some pretty incredible things about it, and since I don't know much of the politics surrounding the time and place, it seems like this one would be of interest to me for a lot of reasons. Wonderful review today!


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