Bernard Valcourt, a middle-aged French Canadian working in Kigali, meets and falls for a young Rwandan girl, Gentille. Through this relationship Valcourt discovers something of what it means to be a woman and a Hutu in the Rwanda of the 1990s, and it’s not just the sectarian killings and their barbarity that make difficult reading.
The novel exposes in a very striking way that the genocide had a context, a background that is far from simple. Although the sectarian hatred between Tutsis and Hutus finds its roots in African history, European colonial powers are shown to have a certain amount of responsibility in the cynical way in which they used the Africa of the colonial age for their own profit with little regard for the consequences, leaving behind a political mess when they were kicked out, and vacuums that were willing filled by corrupt, self-serving opportunists posing as politicians and statesmen.
HIV/AIDS and poverty also form a major part of the backdrop to the general awfulness. Many have given up all hope and just live for the day not caring who they infect, and drowning the horrors of life in alcohol.
Valcourt and Gentille’s love affair is the one spark of hope – for a while. At last she has found a man who treats her as a human being whom he loves rather than an object to have sex with. But history catches up with them as they try to escape the country when the Hutu leaders give the command to slaughter the minority Tutsis. The complicating factor for Gentille, and for many others, is that in spite of being a Hutu she carries the physical traits of a Tutsi, and drunken Hutu soldiers refuse to believe.
The pair are separated as they try to flee and she is presumed to be numbered among the countless dead. Nevertheless Valcourt returns to confirm and face how she met her end, but what he discovers is perhaps even more shocking than murder.
Rape is a common feature in the book, as it has been for hundreds of thousands of women in that part of the world. The most disturbing and heart-rending scene presented to the reader is the description of what happened to Georgina and her husband Cyprien. Cyprien finds his wife lying along the roadside surrounded by beer-drinking youths armed with machetes. She has been gang raped, had her breasts chopped off and is dying. The youths complain to Cyprien that she gave no sign of pleasure while they had their way with her, and force him to try to put a smile on her face as only a husband can. While having forced sex with his dying wife on the ground, surrounded by jeering drunks, the machetes fall on him and they are both finished off.
Death, despair, hopelessness, futility and off-the-scale wickedness, yet told with a magnificent though unsentimental tenderness, you have to force yourself to keep on reading Courtmanche’s brilliant, award-winning novel. Let if fill in a few gaps in your knowledge and you’ll never be able to dismiss the struggles of Africa as something remote, merely an African problem.