I sway between two shores, and this is the disease of my soul.
Before ‘something in the air had changed’, ten-year old Gabriel led a charmed life. Ruling the neighborhood with his pals,getting up to antics like stealing delicious mangoes from their neighbors, one in particular who they would sell them back to unbeknownst to her, they were a brotherhood. Days spent playing football, dodging a bully or swimming in the river seemed like endless happiness. There would come a day when the boys would begin to think differently about many things, including each other. Gabriel and his sister Ana are children of a French father and a Rwandan mother. Their lives are safe, comfortable due to their father, living in a ex-pat community, comapred to the poverty surrounding them, including their own hired help. Gabriel isn’t always the most aware of the differences between his place in the country compared to the locals. He will never really be one of them. The story begins as a carefree coming of age and quickly descends into the horrors of violence, war.
His parents have a malfunction of some sort in their marriage. His mother Yvonne knows what it’s like to be a refugee, to always be aware she is nothing but a foreigner. Where Gabriel’s father Michel sees beauty, comfort, she can ony see the poverty and struggle. She would love nothing more than to leave for Europe, but Michel knows back in his home they would be just ordinary people, in a city without the wilds of Africa. Where Yvonne sees safety, a place to raise her children without the threat of death looming over them all if she could just get to Europe, Michel thinks she is thankless, doesn’t recognize the blessings of the comfortable life he affords her. She knows all too well the reality of what could happen, what is always brewing beyond the beauty of the rolling hills. He thinks a French passport can save her, she knows better.
At the French school he attends in Bujumbura, he has a French pen pal, a girl named Laure, and the letters they share lend to the early sweetness, the spirited boy he is before the clouds darken and he is infected by his country’s horror. The saddest letter he pens is to Christian (you have to read).
In a breath it all changes. There are whispers about Hutsi and Tutsi people (like his mother) , nothing Gabby quite understands except they are different ethnic groups and you can tell who is who by their features. There are less Tutsi than Hutu, the Tutsi are tall the Hutu have short noses and if they are the same, share the same country, why then why the hatred? It will take a slaughter to make the differences a reality and his childhood will vanish as if overnight. After the night of a coup, the death of presidents his mother knows her family is in trouble. The Tutsi are blamed for the assassination, the Hutu are told to take up arms, families are being massacred. Only the Westerners will be evacuated, hell has broken loose. Gabby’s Maman waits, frantic, sick with fear until finally she is able to leave for Rwanda in search of her family.
Some of Gabriel’s friends are leaving with their family for the safety of France. The brotherhood is cracking, Gino is turning their innocent band of brothers into a violent gang. If they aren’t willing to take part in the bloodshed to protect their own streets, they will all die! Gabriel has had enough of senseless killings, wants no part in it. Why does he have to prove loyalty as Hutu or Tutsi, they are just children! Can’t they just go back to what they once were, to boyish antics? But he will have to chose, he may be forced into committing a horror swallowed by fear and he will never be able to return to the innocence of his carefree youth. The help is dying off, just like that, found in ditches. With schools closing and everything intensifying his father knows he must see to his children’s safety, get them out of there. The family will forever be split.
He tells us, now an adult living in France, that he was from a place surrounded by family, friends, acquaintances and warmth…but that place is long gone. It’s not just the land the makes a place your homeland. Upon his return the reader learns what became of his mother and father and all the people from the life he was in exile from. That his sister wants nothing but to forget all of it is her way of coping with the unbearable. It’s shocking, what fear can make us do, that brother turns against brother. There is a moment in the novel when Yvonne breaks down, shocked by what happened to her family and it is one of the most gut wrenching narratives I’ve ever read about death.
It’s hard to write a review about Africa’s not so distant history (1992) and the same could be said for any country, we can read about genocide, war, political upheaval in books but never scratch the surface of what it was like for the people who lived through it. Reading can never be a way to fully absorb what it means to be in fear of your life based on your ethnicity, to watch those you love slaughtered, to be cut from the roots of your birthplace, torn from the arms of your parents, lose the carefree innocence of childhood but it can be a voice, an echo of those lost. This was a tough read, and I thank my lucky stars for my place in the world, it could easily have been me born to horror.
Publication Date: June 5, 2018