Rachel Shepherd decides to try and find her father, Henry Shepherd, who abandoned her when she was eight years old. Her quest brings her to Rwanda to meet Lillian, a woman who looks after orphans on her farm. Lillian also had a long-term relationship with Henry, and Rachel hopes Lillian can answer her questions about Henry. While in Rwanda, Rachel learns some things about her father but also learns about the Rwandan Genocide, especially as it affected Nadine, Lillian’s adopted daughter.
Multiple points of view are given; those of Rachel and Lillian predominate but those of Nadine and Tucker, a doctor who lives on Lillian’s farm, and even Henry are also included at times. Each of them is living with intense grief; all have, in some way, lost loved ones. They are all trying to find amahoro, the Kinyarwanda word for “peace.” To find this inner peace, they must learn to forgive; only by doing so can they find hope and learn to truly love.
It is Nadine’s story which is most compelling. Though she survived the genocide, she cannot forget it. Like all Rwandans, she must live next to those who participated in the killings and rapes. Lillian mentions, “’Most of us don’t expect justice, not really. . . . The goal of the gacaca [trials] is reconciliation and forgiveness. . . . Not so much letting go [of the past] as finding a way to live with it.’” Providing a personal, individual perspective on the genocide is the novel’s most noteworthy element.
I cannot say that I really enjoyed the book. There are many things about it that annoyed me. First of all, Rachel is so self-centred and whiny at the beginning that it is difficult to connect with her. She wants her husband to say “I don’t blame you” and she needs to know that her father loved her and she needs her husband to tell her he needs her. Everything is about her! Then her approach to finding her father makes no sense. I understand that getting her to Rwanda is crucial for her transformation and for the novel’s thematic development, but if she can use the internet to find Lillian’s email address, why doesn’t she use it to try and locate her father? Only much latter does she say, “I’ve been thinking, I’ll go look for him.’” Lillian responds to Rachel’s first email by saying she wishes she could help Rachel. Why, then, doesn’t she give the information she does have about Henry’s last whereabouts?
There are other things that bothered me. Caribou are North American reindeer but they are also found in Africa? What’s the deal with the stolen laptop? It is never mentioned again. Why does Christian keep Rachel’s passport? A man who was abandoned as a child would abandon his own child? One moment Rachel “jackknifes the bike into the grassy ditch and jumps off” and the next minute she claims that someone “’drove right over it’”? Rachel is Jewish (claiming “Her mother insisted that they attend services for the high holidays every year to ask for absolution for their sins and then start fresh again on Rosh Hashanah”), yet she “misses waking up early on Christmas morning, as excited as a kid”? Rachel brings a snow globe with her to Africa and her father travels around the continent with “several jars of peanut butter”? Henry goes to Africa because Lillian writes to him and because “The Life photo editor said he would be interested in seeing some follow-up shots of the girl [who] . . . devoted her life to caring for orphans in Africa,” but later he has “only a vague notion of finding Lillian and photographing her farm.” Yet even later, he decides “It’s time to go find Lillian’s farm, take the photos he came for.” How can Rachel claim “Her father told her stories about Kwizera [Lillian’s farm]” when he had not yet been there and received only one letter from Lillian? A student would be expelled from university for failing a midterm exam? Rachel’s mother “didn’t want their daughter to be alone in the world, without a family” and asks Henry to come see Rachel but then tells him to leave almost as soon as he arrives? I read an eARC so perhaps some of these problems will be rectified, but these types of discrepancies (and there are many others I didn’t mention) affected my enjoyment of and appreciation for the book.
Rachel’s development and the insight into the Rwandan Genocide make this book a worthwhile read. However, it needs considerable editing and is unduly lengthy. Parts of it are also predictable, the romance being a prime example.
Note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.