Contemporary Literature

Small Country

I first saw this book on @bookworm_man’s IG – a source I definitely trust for books. He had nothing but good things to say about it, so I knew, when I saw it as an option on First to Read, that I wanted it.

Small Country by Gaël Faye


“Genocide is an oil slick: those who don’t drown in it are polluted for life.”

This is a coming of age story centered around a loss of innocence. Gabriel (Gaby) is around 10, half-French and half-Rwandan, living in Burundi. It’s just a year or so before the Rwandan genocide that everyone knows about, and though tensions are growing both between political factions and between Hutus and Tutsis, Gaby lives removed from this. Living a fairly privileged life, his biggest concerns and past-times are (as they should be for youth) stealing mangoes from the neighbors, his new bike, and the gang of friend he runs around with. The shift in his transition from childhood starts with his parents’ separation and is quickly followed by many of his friends becoming more and more politicized as they lose family and friends to the onset of war. Gaby fights against being pulled into this storm, but in the end, he too transitions out of the carelessness of youth and into a world that doesn’t discriminate in pain and loss.

Something really interesting about this novel was that, though it’s listed as fiction, it has a strong feel of memoir to it. (And after reading about the author’s background, that really does not surprise me.) It has the jumpy quality of memoirs, where highlighted stories from childhood are told and bounced between, with less concern for timelines or consistent development than for making sure the “best” bits are told. In addition, this is a book in translation so there are definitely some parts that are less smooth, as far as wording or vernacular. Because of this, it took me a little bit to adjust to the flow, but once I did, things picked up quickly. And I don’t think that, by the end, that had very much bearing on my overall impressions. In fact, the moments of amazing description, ones that made you feel the breeze and the sun and the rain and the sounds of music or insects or gunshots, far outweigh the awkward moments. There were many times while I was reading that I truly felt like I was there with Gaby, terrified of jumping off a high dive or with dripping mango juice all down my arms or laying in bed eavesdropping on his mother’s horrific stories of burying her slaughtered family alone.

The way the transition from the pranks and worries of childhood give way to the bullets and deaths of war and genocide is intuitively written. It takes a book that begins as merely an interesting snapshot of life in Africa to something much more. And starting with that base of “life before” makes the changes you read about that much more upsetting. And it’s even more heartbreaking to see it in this light, both through the eyes of a child but also, through the eyes of someone who saw the idyll that was his country before the war and sees what it has become after as a result of hate and fear. What Gaby sees happening, the new choices he is forced to make, what becomes a new normal, is as terrible as anything can be. Through it all he deals with it as any terrified youth losing his carefree days might – it’s very relatable in that way. It’s also so hard to see what it was like for him in such a privileged situation and imagine how much worse it still could be. The one other thing I want to mention is the affect of the genocide and loss on his mother, which was probably one of the saddest parts that we see happening – illustrating plainly that surviving something is not the end…and that living with those experiences might be even worse.

I read that this book quickly became a bestseller when first released in France and I can completely see why. It’s an accessible representation of an unfathomably evil time and, past the facts and numbers we all know, really puts a human face on tragedy. It’s a short, fast read, but still manages to show the drastic-ness and unreality of the Rwandan genocide, what (at a basic level) led to it, how unreasonably-founded and dangerous societal factions can be, and how from one generation to another these thoughts and feelings take root and perpetuate. An affecting and illustrative narration of coming of age and loss of innocence.

SO many moments and quotes and insights that I wanted to pull for you all. Here’s a selection:

“What mattered was this: Loving. Living. Laughing. Being. Forging ahead, never faltering, to the ends of the earth, and even a little beyond.”

“Rain had washed the sky, while the rays of sunshine striking the sodden ground traced spirals of pinkish mist above a vast green plain intersected by the ochre waters of the Rusizi river.”

“Theirs are interchangeable spirits, floating voices, erratic heartbeats. In the ashen hours of night, individuals disappear and all that remains is the country talking to itself.”

“So was this what violence meant? Raw fear and disbelief.”

“War always takes it upon itself, unsolicited, to find us an enemy. Even though I wanted to remain neutral, I couldn’t. I was born with this story. It ran in my blood. I belonged to it.”

“Suffering is a wildcard in the game of debate, it wipes the floor with all other arguments.”

“You should beware of books, they’re sleeping genies.”

“We shouldn’t doubt the beauty of things, not even under a torturing sky.”

“Lying on my bed, I could admire the spectacle of tracer bullets in the sky. In another time and another place, I‘d have mistaken them for shooting stars.”

“If one is from a country, if one was born there in a manner that one would say one was a native-indigene, well, one carries the country in one’s eyes, skin, hands, in the hairs of its trees, the flesh of its soil, the bones of its stones, the blood of its rivers, its sky, its savour, its men and women…”

“I don’t know how this story will end. But I do remember how it all began.”

I received an ARC of this book, provided by the publisher via First to Read, in exchange for an honest review.

10 thoughts on “Small Country

  1. I’m not really a fan of things that read like memoirs, but this definitely sounds like it’s interesting! To go from carefree childhood pranks to the dark days of war seems like such a stark, disturbing contrast! Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m glad it resonated with you. And yes, this is definitely one that I would recommend as like a “memoir intro.” It has aspects that are very memoir-y in the way the book is written/executed (and becuase even though the characters may not be “real” the historical events certainly are), but since it’s a fictional story within the greater context, that also comes through strongly and mitigates the sometimes less desirable memoir type traits.


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