Review: 'Running The Rift'

A new novel from Naomi Benaron tells the compelling of a long distance runner from Rwanda who is struggling to reach the Olympics as his country suffers dreadful ethnic violence. Alan Cheuse who teaches writing at George Mason University, has a review.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Athletes all over the world are training for the summer Olympics in London. We'll hear some of their personal stories as the games get closer. But now, a fictional story about a man who wants to reach the Olympics. "Running the Rift" is about an African athlete's struggles with his country's ethnic divisions.

Here's our reviewer, Alan Cheuse.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: John Patrick, the main character of Naomi Benaron's first novel, is a young Rwandan student from the Lake Kivu region who hopes to run in the Olympics. And he begins to train hard, even as a young kid. When his schoolmaster father dies in a roadside accident, his mother and the rest of the family scrape by.

While the country lurches toward the tragedy every reader will know is coming, John Patrick runs. He runs up and down the paths and the hills of his home region, strengthening his legs and lungs, his eye on the distant Olympic prize.

Within a few years, he heads off to school; courts a girl from a Hutu neighborhood near the university; trains hard with a Hutu coach; wins some races, loses others; and deepens his affection for his native land, a land which a visiting American academic, a geologist at the university, describes as having a landscape twisted and folded, tied in knots by a history of pressure and heat.

That's how Patrick's story unfolds. And I have to say, novelist Benaron, with her fusion of research and firsthand observation of Rwandan society, knows how to tie the reader in knots as she develops Patrick's life-affirming story while the reader waits for the inevitable genocide.

At one point, as the killings begin to spread, John Patrick finds that the blood smell was overmuch in his nostrils. And he wonders if it would ever wash away. I know that thanks to this novel, I won't soon forget it.

BLOCK: The book is "Running the Rift" by Naomi Benaron. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University.

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