________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 4. . . .September 25, 2009


Broken Memory: A Novel of Rwanda.

Élisabeth Combres. Translated by Shelley Tanaka.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2009.
112 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.95 (pbk.), $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-88899-893-4 (pbk.),
ISBN 978-0-88899-892-7 (hc.).

Subject Headings:
Hutu (African people)-Fiction.
Tutsi (African people)-Fiction.
Rwanda-History-Civil War, 1994-Fiction.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Joan Marshall.

**½ /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



She was just approaching the outskirts of town when the truck full of prisoners drew alongside and passed her. The tarp had been pulled up at the back, revealing the men inside.

Three of them were talking, and one voice in particular stood out. Emma didn’t recognize it at first, but she felt an uneasy murmur rising around her, a mix of blows, insults and laughs.

It was when she heard her mother scream that she recognized the voice of the man.

A sharp pain cut through her chest. She tried to run, but she was suddenly horribly dizzy, and her legs wouldn’t move.

Later when the truck was far away and she could no longer hear the voice, her uneasiness grew. The real world faded around her as the roar of the assassins, their blows, the pain of her mother and her own terror took shape.

Then, just as she had done that night, she took shelter against a nearby wall, crouching down and burying her head in her arms.

A few women tried to lift her up, children poked her to make her react. But it was no use.

So, little by little, life carried on around her, and her huddled figure eventually blended into the peaceful countryside at the end of an ordinary day.

In April of 1994, the military of the tiny central African nation of Rwanda slid over the edge of outright discrimination against its minority Tutsi people to the slaughter of this sophisticated, intelligent ethnic group. The majority Hutu people banded with the military to create one of the most horrifying genocides the world has ever seen. Broken Memory is a short, easy-to-read novel about a Tutsi girl’s survival during these shocking times.

     Five-year-old Emma hides as her mother is brutally murdered. She joins other refugees and lands, starving and terrified, on the doorstep of Mukecuru, a simple Hutu peasant, who hides her until the war is over. Mukecuru’s calm, loving predictable life goes a long way to curing Emma’s trauma, but it is an old man, a Tutsi survivor, who helps her to verbalize what she has endured. Another damaged child, Ndoli, who, under torture, survived after betraying his family and other rebels, makes friends with Emma whose terror returns when guilty Hutus are returned to the village to be accused and tried. Eventually, Emma returns to her village to gather proof of who she is in order to receive funds that help her to attend school and, 10 years later, to become a teacher. She rebuilds her old home and has her mother reburied there in the garden.

     This novel has three sections: “Bad Dreams,” about Emma’s mother’s death and Mukecuru’s rescue of Emma; “Keeping Watch,” about Emma’s coping and suffering from PTSD; and “The Return,” about how Emma begins to become well. The language is simple, almost child-like, reflecting Emma’s innocence and terror. In a few places, it has an awkward, translated feel, as if more should have been added. An Epilogue brings readers up to date about Emma’s future and an Author’s Note explains the Rwandan War in simple terms, including the silence of the international community and the attempt at justice by the UN Criminal Tribunal set up in Tanzania.

     Emma could be any war victim and doesn’t really develop as a character beyond her suffering, which defines her. Even her fierce desire to go to school can’t be addressed until she begins to recover. Murecuru’s compassion and gentleness show her character, but there is no physical description of her. The old man (who remains nameless) is vividly described, and it’s also easier to picture Ndoli whose physical deformities caused by torture define him as different. All of the characters seem metaphoric, a way of seeing this horrible war and trying to make sense of it, rather than individuals.

     Details of the market, Murecuru’s kitchen, their food, the other children’s school uniforms, the medical clinic, Emma’s bus trip to her old home and the truckloads of prisoners on the dusty roads firmly set this book in Rwanda. Broken Memory seems to be aimed at weaker middle school readers who will be surprised at the time it takes to recover from PTSD but who will be relieved at the book’s relatively happy ending.


Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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