Book Review - All Your Children, Scattered

The 1994 genocide of the Tutsi people devastated Rwanda in just 100 days. Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse’s searing debut novel explores how its aftermath affected three generations of one family. Immaculata survives the massacres in Butare by hiding in the basement of her Hutu neighbour’s bookshop. Her son, Bosco, joins the exiled rebel army, while her daughter, Blanche, escapes to France, meets her husband and settles in Bordeaux with their child, Stokely.

The novel is narrated from the perspectives of Blanche, Immaculata and Stokely and is a poignant meditation on the violence that ruptured so many lives. The women’s experiences, their struggle to come to terms with trauma and survivor’s guilt, are emblematic of the nation’s attempts to heal.

Immaculata reflects on her childhood under Belgium’s protectorate and how at secondary school she was forbidden from speaking her mother tongue, Kinyarwanda. She ponders the ability of words to dehumanise – to “pierce brutally like a spear” – but finds refuge in books that nurture “kinship”. Blanche interrogates her identity: she is mixed race, light skinned and lives in Europe, but where does she truly belong? Speaking French can feel like “a decorative veneer… a public corset, ridiculous and pretentious”, whereas her mother tongue is “her backbone, the language in which she expressed her sorrows and kept her secrets”.

Stokely recognises the culpability of the colonial administration that had fuelled division in Rwanda by classifying people according to ethnicity. He reconciles himself to his mixed heritage, learns Kinyarwanda and helps the women find a way back to each other.

Mairesse’s lyrical prose, translated by Alison Anderson, is mesmerising. She crafts beautiful sentences to convey a feeling or mood: “I hanged myself on my tongue”, “silence is a shield”, a smile is “like a dove flying over a courtyard in the late morning sun”.

The title comes from the Catholic liturgy: “gather to yourself all your children scattered throughout the world”. Rwandan proverbs also resonate throughout. Mairesse’s deft entwining of cultural traditions is part of the novel’s power.

Originally published by The Observer