Small Country by Gael Faye

Format: Paperback

Publisher: Hogarth Press

Published: 2018 (1st pub 2016)

Genre: Historical fiction / Semi biographical

Setting: Burundi

Rating: 3/5 Stars


In 1992, Gabriel, ten years old, lives in Burundi in a comfortable expatriate neighborhood with his French father, his Rwandan mother and his little sister, Ana. In this joyful idyll, Gabriel spends the better part of his time with his mischievous band of friends, in a tiny cul-de-sac they have turned into their kingdom. But their peaceful existence will suddenly shatter when this small African country is brutally battered by history.
In this magnificent coming-of-age story, Gael Faye describes an end of innocence and drives deep into the heart and mind of a young child caught in the maelstrom of history. (Source: Goodreads)

My Thoughts...

I find that most books referencing the Great Lakes conflict largely between the main ethnic groups - Hutus and Tutsis are always highly rated and well received. And in my opinion, in most cases, not for the prowess of the literary work but because this chilling conflict is one that the world is still reckoning with it. We’re still trying to understand what happened in 1994, we’re still learning about this painful past and it’s long standing effects on the thousands who had to flee and stay in exile for years and those forced to stay behind.

And whilst I completely empathize and understand the need for sensitivity in this regard, I feel that this then clouds our receivership of the literary work. More so with autobiographies and semi-autobiographical works.

In Small Country, Gael Faye, through the eyes of a 10yr old Gaby, a mixed race boy of a French father and Rwandan mother living in Burundi, reflects this painful past and the circumstances that led to his flight to France. Gaby struggles to remain neutral in this conflict that has split Rwanda into two and now threatens to spill over to Burundi, right down to his street forcing him to make a choice no child should ever be put in a position to make.

Faye does a good job in painting a vivid picture of this conflict, and not just the inter ethnic conflict but the internal conflict that goes on in the individual when in situations of war. The writing is poetic and because it’s such a short book, it’s easy to read.

A couple of things however seem to work against the book - Gaby tells this story from a privileged boy’s perspective sheltered from the effects of the war and his narration also feels distance. As if he was watching as other people’s lives became upended while his and his friends in this middle class neighborhood remained untainted. It’s not until the last few pages that he begins to close this distance and by this time, I could not fully immerse myself in the characters.

Gael loses his child voice in the narration. A lot of the reflections are too heavy and philosophical for a 10 year old boy, i had to keep going back to confirm that the narrator was actually 10-11yo. He references drinking alcohol, late night political conversations with older people over beer and cigarettes, deep political musings that didn’t quite reflect the cognitive abilities of a 10 year old.

Instead of letting the reader experience and infer the gravity of the situation using a childhood innocence which i believe is such a powerful tool, Gael tells it to us in a rather philosophical tone.

If i were to rate this book - Prologue and Epilogue 4/5, Part one 2/5, Part two 4/5. Overall it 3/5

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