Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron is the story of a young man coming to terms with life, love and himself in war-torn Rwanda. Jean Patrick Nkuba is a thoughtful boy and a gifted runner who has a goal to run for Rwanda’s Olympic team. He trains, works hard at school and enjoys time with his close family. When his father dies in a car accident, it acts as a precursor to all of the horrible things that Jean Patrick, his family and his country will have to endure as the countryside soon becomes divided, often violently between Tutsis and Hutus. Jean Patrick is a Tutsi, part of the group who is to come under much seize from the Hutu power groups and soldiers in the coming years.
As tensions rise and violence and infractions ensue, Jean Patrick constantly turns to running as his escape from his surroundings. He also knows that running may be his only chance to survive, as well as his opportunity to represent a unified Rwanda. Jean Patrick is under the guidance of Coach, a lofty character who sticks by Jean Patrick through much; Coach becomes a dominant figure in the novel and provides Jean Patrick with a Hutu nationality card, looks out for him and makes sure he can still attend school. The violence that is creeping into Rwanda, is peppered throughout the novel, but through the eyes of Jean Patrick, the reader sees what he sees on his runs, what he encounters at train stations, in class and how he finds out the fate of people he cares about and grew up with. It is all deeply personal and at the same time, quite lyrical.
Rwanda’s political and national problems grow increasingly terrible, and tensions between the groups begin to boil over, even as Jean Patrick begins to run in Olympic qualifying races and falls in love. Soon, no one is safe from the government, soldiers and various militia groups that begin to spring up all over. Jean Patrick looses those closest to him, encounters horrible violence and suffering and soon learns that those he trusted most in the world are not on his side. Quickly, staying alive becomes Jean Patrick’s main objective and the Olympics seem like a far away dream. Wounded, emotionally and physically, Jean Patrick remains driven.
Benaron does a great job describing the landscape, the characters and even the horror, in a readable, yet educational way. Running the Rift is fiction, but the tragedies detailed within were common practice and occurrences during the genocide in Rwanda. With Jean Patrick as the mouthpiece, the reader is able to see and also feel his immense sense of self, loss and eventually pride as Rwanda is torn apart.
Lauren Cannavino is a graduate student, freelance writer, wine lover, and avid reader. Random musings can be found over at www.goldiesays.com.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Algonquin Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.