Naomi Benaron, author of Running the Rift, takes the material of a beautiful country and a beautiful people to gradually lead the reader on a journey that encompasses the greatness that occurs in the simplest of acts alongside a descent into nearly unimaginable horror. Following the story of Jean Patrick Nbuka, the plot shifts step by step into Rwanda, and then, in rim horrifying detail, into the genocide that defines the country still.
Recently list as one of the top five novels that all runners should read by the Guardian, it works - just! - as a novel about running. Jean Patrick, a young Tutsi, grows into Rwanda's best hope for an Olympic medal in the 800 meters. For Jean Patrick, this is not a revelation, but the culmination of a dream that started in grade school when he raced his brother to the gates of Gihundwe. The hard work, more than a decade of it, comes later in the story, woven in seamlessly with the greater story of the country.
The story of Rwanda, in the lead-up to the dissolution of civilization, and into the aftermath, dominates the story. Benaron deftly builds the tension, first with a rock-throwing incident at Gihundwe, Jean Patrick's primary school, then in the streets. The sense of menace tracks the youth all the way to university. His saving grace, what keeps him safe, is his ability to run like the wind, to earn the nickname Mr. Olympics.
In the midst of that, Benaron presents all the beauty of Rwanda, in the sights, sounds, in the simple descriptions of the food. Her writing is elegant and clean, adding enough to bring you into Rwanda, to sit you at the table so you can listen to the babble of voices and taste the banana beer.
Benaron applies that same skill to the blackness without resorting to the melodramatic, letting the story follow the history with a sense of inevitableness that leaves the reader in fear for Jean Patrick and his love, Bea, as the tipping point to chaos approaches.
The author also leaves the reader angry, not just at the human cruelty, but at the cowardliness of the rest of the world who looked to Rwanda - and looked away again while the Tutsi were annihilated en masse and twenty percent of the Hutu, those sympathetic to national reconciliation, were murdered.
As I mentioned above, Running the Rift is just barely a novel of running. The running is well done, but it is the rest of the story, beyond the cleanliness of pain that is the 800 meters, that makes this into the powerful story that needs to be read.