Élisabeth Combres, translated by Shelley Tanaka,
Broken Memory: A Novel of Rwanda
Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2009 (first published in French in 2007)
This short, poignant, and delicately composed book achieves the extremely difficult feat of creating an approachable story about the Rwandan massacres of 1994, when Hutu Rwandans slaughtered nearly a million of their Tutsi compatriots. Emma, who is less than five years old, hears, though she does not see, the murder of her mother at this time. Her mother hides her, and her last words to her daughter are, "You must not die, Emma!" This instruction is what keeps Emma going, on a long and lonely refugee trek with many strangers, and what eventually drives her to the door of Mukecuru, a Hutu woman who takes in the little girl despite the risks to herself, and thus saves her life.
The book tells of Emma’s post-trauma nightmares, which haunt but also enhance her understanding of some of the other survivors she meets in the vicinity of her new home. With an economy of language that evokes but does not dwell on Emma’s despair and grief, Combres describes not just broken memories but also a broken society. Emma’s steps towards a form of recovery are mirrored by the active efforts of those around her, from Mukecuru all the way up to the official systems of justice, to find ways to address the huge pain of this country. Ten years after the terrible slaughter, she begins to find ways to restore her sense of her mother.
Obviously there is a danger of mawkishness in such an account, but Combres successfully avoids such perils, and tells an effective and highly moving story of terror and recovery. She brings alive a world that is very far removed from that of most Canadian teenagers, yet simultaneously makes it possible for many readers to identify with Emma even though her experiences may seem very alien to most. And, of course, there are some Canadian teens for whom such a story may be all too immediately recognizable; it would be good to think that they could find some alleviation of their own sorrow in this gracefully composed story of survival and hope.
Thematic Links: Rwanda; Genocide; Trauma; Recovery
Vol. 15, number 3
E - Excellent, enduring, everyone should see it!
G - Good, even great at times, generally useful!
A - Average, all right, has its applications.
P - Problematic, puzzling, poorly presented.