Thursday, April 12, 2012

Running the Rift, a riveting debut

Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron
Review by Craig

Running the Rift, a wonderful debut novel by Naomi Benaron, follows the early life of aspiring Olympian Jean Patrick Nkuba as he grows up amid ethnic strife in Rwanda. Jean Patrick is Tutsi, the ethnic minority in majority Hutu Rwanda, but begins life with a fair amount of privilege. His family endures a devastating loss when he is very young, forcing him and his mother and siblings to live with his uncle, a relatively poor Tutsi fisherman. As a Tutsi, Jean Patrick encounters considerable discrimination and abuse. He is largely unfazed as he attempts to become a world-class short distance runner. But as Jean Patrick grows, so does the tension between Hutu and Tutsi throughout Rwanda. Although Jean Patrick's primary concern is strengthening his running career and his relationships with friends and family, he cannot avoid being drawn into the simmering politics of a country about to erupt in violence.

 Running the Rift impressively weaves the story of a young man coming of age in a turbulent environment with the horrifying history of Rwanda during the late 80's and early 90's. Real politicians and people of power leading up to the 1994 Rwandan genocide enter and exit Jean Patrick's life. All seemingly have agendas and want to use Jean Patrick to some political end. This is fiction, to be sure, but Benaron commands such an extensive knowledge of Rwandan history, culture, and geography that the reader will certainly learn something about the troubled nation by story's end.

The Rwandan civil war was one of the darkest events in human history, but it provides a compelling backdrop for a work of fiction. However, the novel's greatest success lay with its characters. Jean Patrick is as endearing a protagonist as one is likely to find. All of the primary characters (and even the minor ones) are so well written that the reader can easily become attached to them, particularly during the explosive climax. Because part of the novel occurs during the genocide, expect to encounter some heart-wrenching scenes. But despite the horrific violence endured by the Tutsi and the Hutu who sympathized with them, the author wisely limits the gore without sacrificing the emotional impact of the tragedy. Ultimately, this is a rich story about a young man forced to make difficult life decisions in situations far beyond his control. Riveting and highly recommended.

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