Faye's debut tells the story of Gabriel, a preteen boy in mid-1990s Burundi when violence from the Rwandan genocide spills over the border.
Gabriel wishes he were elsewhere. The social fabric is deteriorating around him. But staying home and reading does not slow the pace of his losses. His mother goes to Rwanda to try to save her Tutsi family members, while his French father stays home to look after the children. Eventually, the killing that was kept at arm’s length comes to their street, and Gabriel loses almost everything. Though the situation is rich, it does not become so until about midway through the book. The first half is all calm before the storm: tiffs with other boys, a pen-pal crush, playing and getting into mischief outdoors. Life meanders along without tension or stakes. This might have worked if the language were particularly powerful or evocative. It is not. Awkward phrases Faye (or translator Ardizzone) uses, such as "footsteps to-ing and fro-ing" or "parched flamboyant tree,” don’t help. The book is not without strong points, including a wonderful paragraph toward the end about a murder that happens in broad daylight as people continue to go about their days. It’s a pity the story does not start closer to these events and the language is not as strong throughout.
Faye provides an interesting window into Burundi and a reminder of the specious logic and horrific cost of treating others like vermin.