Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron

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Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: This affecting, prize winning story provides Olympics year with its most original sports-related novel. Jean Patrick Nkumba has a chance to become an Olympian, but he is also a Rwandan Tutsi and so life is about to take a devastating turn.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 284 Date: March 2012
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1851689217

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Jean Patrick Nkumba has a sheltered, comparatively privileged upbringing in Rwanda. Although far from opulent, life in the school compound where his father is headmaster is safe and Jean Patrick is loved and encouraged by his family to aim high both at school and in his passion for running. Despite being of the Tutsi tribe, he has also been encouraged to think of himself as Rwandan first, a nationality and ethos encompassing the rival Hutus. However not all feel the same and a series of tragic events lead to world news and personal hell. For this is the land where, in 1994, 800,000 people would be killed during a mere 100 days.

This is a fascinating, touching book that personalises the Rwandan genocide. Running the Rift begins in 1984 and gradually builds to a crescendo a decade later, and then traces the aftermath, through the eyes of one fictional character representing so many real people.

The milestones in Jean Patrick's life are the same as those in young people's lives everywhere: school, dreams of university and career, falling in love and sport. However there are parts of his life with which his peers in other countries don't have to contend. For instance in order to get a place in university Jean Patrick has to produce the highest rating results as anything less would mean being pushed way down the order by Hutus. Also the backdrop to his education and athletics training is a decaying political situation. Eventually it abruptly steals his innocence as the true interpretation of events is explained to him by his radical girlfriend, Bea.

Anyone who paid attention to the news during the 1990s knows about the genocide but Running the Rift brings them into the realm of a starker reality as a culture, a way of life and faces are added to the now historic events. As readers we celebrate as Jean Patrick shatters each personal best on the track, but so do we jolt as the Burundi president is assassinated, leading to civil war, leading to the killing of the Rwandan president, leading to...

Naomi Benaron communicates events and a routine savagely overturned well, just as well, in fact, as she communicates emotion. For as the Tutsis try to get word of the worsening situation out to the world, their frustration is tangible. The UN soldiers seem powerless to protect (a theme that would be repeated the following year in European Srebrenica) and 'westerners' (represented in the book by Jean Patrick's American tutor and wife) seem more upset by the murder of Dian Fossey than by the daily deaths of Rwandans caught in the turmoil.

The author was haunted by this book for a while before she began, in fact, in her words ...[Jean Patrick's] voice wouldn't let me be until I wrote it down. This year there will be many books released around the theme of the Olympics recording feats of great athleticism against the odds. However, there won't be another like this a record of a time and place where the greatest feat is survival, the greatest award not a medal, but that the Rwandan victims will be remembered. This may just be one side to a story, but it's powerful and a tribute to all those who suffered. Jean Patrick would be proud.

I would like to thank the publisher for giving Bookbag a copy of this book for review.

If, having read this, you would like to learn more about the Rwandan genocide, perhaps the writings of Jean Hatzfeld would be something you'd like to explore. If you prefer fiction and would like to read more about Africa generally, try Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

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Buy Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron at


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