Rwanda, Nigeria, Connecticut, India

Novels of October

October 26, 2003|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

It's been almost 10 years since 800,000 Tutsis were shot and hacked to death in a barbarous slaughter organized by the rival Hutu tribe in Rwanda. The French and Belgians -- who do considerable business there -- did little to stop it, the United Nations did less, and the United States all but ignored it. Fearing that the blood bath will soon be forgotten completely, Gil Courtemanche has written a harrowing novel describing the long nightmare of violence that engulfed Rwanda.

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (Knopf, 272 pages, $23) is a brilliant book full of rage and sorrow. A veteran Canadian journalist, Courtemanche has spent many years reporting on the sufferings of Africans, especially with regard to the AIDS epidemic. But the horrors of Rwanda in the grip of genocide surpass all others, and have inspired the writer to create a work of fiction that makes the evils of that time seem fresh and immediate.

The story is told through the eyes of a French-Canadian journalist named Valcourt -- an international activist and muckraker not unlike Courtemanche himself. The reporter is based at the only luxury hotel in Kigali, where he watches with disdain as his fellow Westerners enjoy themselves while Rwanda slowly collapses into anarchy. The worst offender is the U.N. general in charge of keeping the warring tribes apart. He is a coward who oversees a "peace that kills on a daily basis."

Valcourt has many friends among the local people -- including a doomed lover -- and does his best to alert the outside world to the growing danger, but nobody seems to care. As he reflects on the reasons for the West's indifference, he reaches a bitter conclusion: "It takes 10,000 dead Africans to furrow the brow of even one left-leaning White."

An insider's look at contemporary Africa can be found this month in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus (Algonquin, 320 pages, $23.95). It's the story of a young woman in Nigeria who seems to have a good life in a wealthy home.

Her father is a successful businessman and a respected local leader. But behind the imposing exterior of their large estate, young Kambili lives in fear of her tyrannical father, who explodes in periodic fits of anger and religious fanaticism.

When she escapes for a visit to a loving aunt, her life suddenly blossoms as she discovers the joys of freedom. Told in prose as lush as the Nigerian landscape that it powerfully evokes, Purple Hibiscus is one of the best novels to come out of Africa in years. But Adichie's understanding of a young girl's heart is so acute that her story ultimately rises above its setting and makes her little part of Nigeria seem as close and vivid as Eudora Welty's Mississippi.

A more conventional -- but very funny and touching -- tale of a young woman coming of age is Heidi Jon Schmidt's The Bride of Catastrophe (Picador, 400 pages, $24). Set in Hartford, Conn., during the 1970s, the story has the usual episodes of family dysfunction, sexual awakening and romantic disillusion, but it is saved from bathos by its unsentimental humor and astute take on American culture.

The heroine's discovery of her bisexuality is both amusing and unsettling. As she recovers from a passionate relationship with a female lover and plunges into a confused one with a boring male, she tries to make sense of modern romance and comes to some illuminating conclusions. A typical observation is this explanation of the male fascination for science fiction: "It's the natural male genre ... none of this relationship stuff. Docking modules do not entice them, confuse them, docking modules ... just do what men made them to do and then drift into some other orbit and spin."

Susanna Moore's One Last Look (Knopf, 304 pages, $23) may be the novel that finally introduces its accomplished author to a larger audience. A novelist with five previous books to her credit, Moore is a wonderful writer with a sensuous style that comes into its own with her new work, which is set in colonial India. It's the story of an aristocratic English lady who accompanies her brother to his post on the subcontinent and is overwhelmed by homesickness and culture shock.

This could be a predictable tale, but it takes on the quality of a feverish dream as Lady Eleanor sheds her British reserve and goes native in unexpected ways. At first, she is horrified by the potent smells and garish look of things in certain parts of India, but the magic of the place soon undermines her resistance and effects a kind of seduction. Which prompts Eleanor to remark in wonder, "My life, once a fastidious nibble, has turned into an endless disorderly feast."

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