While not set in Malawi, my Peace Corps country, it is set close enough on the continent of Africa to interest me. Plus, a coming of age story that does not focus on sex, sexual orientation or traditional “African” sexual initiation rites, intrigued me. That it also covers the years leading up to and immediately after the horrific Rwandan genocide made it more interesting, but did add trepidation to my thoughts.
“I’ve been very busy recently, trying to stay a child.”
Gaby is a young boy of mixed race and parentage–Rwandan mother (who has lived many years in Burundi) and French father. His life is part wealthy ex-pat (i.e. International School, expatriate gated neighborhood, servants, etc.) and part local boy. He and his sister are living with their father after their mother has left. She is in and out of their lives. Like any boy anywhere, Gaby has neighborhood friends and they run free and call an old VW Bus [“Combi”] their hideout.
“Thanks to my reading, I had broken free from the limits of our street and was able to breathe again; the world seemed bigger now, extending beyond the fences that encouraged us to turn in on ourselves huddled up with our fears.”
Meanwhile, an expatriate lady with a huge library enters Gaby’s life and changes his world in other ways. [Note: I had so hoped for this sort of relationship during my Peace Corps stint. It is way harder to find than I imagined].
“And I felt sorry for them and also for myself, for the purity that is ruined by the all-consuming fear, which transforms everything into wickedness, hared, and death. Into lava.”
But the gang of boys’ days of beer and stolen cigarettes or wanding the neighborhood stealing mangoes are about to end. Real gangs–gangs allied with the political situation and the words “Tutsi” and “Hutu” soon take over.
“We’re alive. They’re dead.”
“I didn’t leave my country, I fled it.”
“Politics” in spite of his father’s best attempts to shield his children, soon take over the family–robbing them of more than could have been imagined.
I loved this book. I admired the father for trying to shelter the children from the evils of their world, but even when he ultimately failed, it was the mother I both loathed and loved. [No spoilers]. Her world, her life–both were impossible. Gaby was a delight, but totally real. Their world was so odd, but it was one I could feel, smell, and enter. Their life, after all, was one I had contemplated while in Malawi–that is staying on and marrying. This book deserves bigger awards than it has already won or for which it has already been nominated or long-listed.
Note: I almost never give 5 stars, so this is huge praise.
Small Country: A Novel by Gael Faye, on sale today, Cyber Monday, for $1.99 on Kindle