Book LearningMay 26, 2011
Stay Tuned…June 13, 2011
Over the past few years, I’ve read many wonderful novels—books that have made a huge impression, stories filled with characters that stayed with me long after I turned the last page. In my mind, I can still conjure John Corrigan, the idealistic young priest from Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Or the title character from Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, a grouchy, lumbering, injured soul so real you could almost hug her, though she probably wouldn’t let you. But I can honestly say that no novel I’ve read in recent memory has moved me as much as Naomi Benaron’s Running the Rift (to be published in January 2012, by Algonquin Books).
You can’t summarize Running the Rift without saying that it is a fictional account of the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about a cruelty so profound that even the earth feels it. It’s about the love of a family and the fierce dignity that they somehow manage to maintain in the face of an unimaginable horror. It’s about a young man running to reach his Olympic dreams, running to be with the love of his life, and running to figure out how to stop running.
This probably sounds like one of those cheesy TV ads for a new Broadway musical (“I laughed, I cried, it was the feel-good hit of the summer!”), but I actually did react in all these varied ways. I found myself smiling at the sweet innocence of characters like Mathilde and Daniel. As I read the last 100 pages, I sobbed like a child who’s been separated from its mother, trying beyond my ability to picture all that the lead character, the remarkable Jean Patrick, was lucky enough to survive—if you can say that such a thing as luck exists in the midst of so much evil. And I felt the heat of anger, at the human beings who dehumanized their neighbors, and at the world for doing nothing to help these people, even as they literally screamed for their lives.
Ms. Benaron’s prose carries you through the darkness as effortlessly as Jean Patrick runs the 800 meters. Her great love for Rwanda and its people comes through in every word, through her descriptions of the food and the landscape, and of course through her characters. Given its subject matter, it is not an easy story to read, but I firmly believe that it’s one we must read. As someone who only knew about the Rwandan genocide through the (relatively sparse) media coverage in the States, Running the Rift puts a human face on something that defies the very notion of a shared humanity.
Though I don’t know Ms. Benaron personally, I think I understand her need to tell this story. The reason that I am writing my novel about the Spanish Civil War is to put a face on a terrible event, and to give voice to the restless spirits that still walk among us. I can only imagine that she must’ve been driven in a similar way. Until we acknowledge these ghosts and hear what they have to tell us, they will never find peace—nor will we.