cover image Our Lady of the Nile

Our Lady of the Nile

Scholastique Mukasonga, trans. from the French by Melanie Mauthner. Archipelago (Random, dist.), $18 trade paper (248p) ISBN 978-0-914671-03-9

In Rwanda, the strife between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority is a constant source of tension. In Mukasonga's debut novel, this conflict is expressed through the microcosm of Our Lady of the Nile, a Catholic boarding school for young ladies. The young women who attend the school all come from wealthy and influential families, and their interweaving stories draw readers into a Rwanda where violence exists a hairsbreadth away at all times, and even money won't save them. Virginia and Veronica are two Tutsi girls in the lycee because of quotas, and they are keenly aware of the dangers they face as the Hutu majority grows more restive. They meet a strange white man who lives near the school and wants to draw them into his elaborate fantasies about the Tutsis. Among the other girls in their school is Gloriosa, the daughter of a Hutu politician, who constantly encourages anti-Tutsi sentiments. Gloriosa starts telling lies about being attacked by Tutsis and the retaliatory violence costs Veronica her life and Virginia her education. Though Mukasonga's characters are relatively distinct (for all being privileged teenaged girls), some lack overt motivation for their nastiness. Nevertheless, she fully draws readers into the tensions, spirituality, and culture of Rwandan life from page one. She helps readers without experience of the setting become immersed at once, feeling out the tribal tensions without being overburdened with exposition. This is a moving, nuanced portrait of fear and survival. (Sept.)