Small Country by Gaël Faye

Small Country

Gaël Faye

Small Country is a stirring tribute to a dark chapter in Africa’s past and to the bright days that preceded it.

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*Longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize*
*Longlisted for the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction* 

Already an international sensation and prize-winning bestseller in France, an evocative coming-of-age story of a young boy, a lost childhood and a shattered homeland.

Burundi, 1992. For ten-year-old Gabriel, life in his comfortable expatriate neighborhood of Bujumbura with his French father, Rwandan mother and little sister Ana, is something close to paradise.
These are carefree days of laughter and adventure – sneaking Supermatch cigarettes and gorging on stolen mangoes – as he and his mischievous gang of friends transform their tiny cul-de-sac into their kingdom.
But dark clouds are gathering over this small country, and soon their peaceful existence will shatter when Burundi, and neighboring Rwanda, are brutally hit by civil war and genocide.  
A novel of extraordinary power and beauty, Small Country describes an end of innocence as seen through the eyes of a child caught in the maelstrom of history. Shot through with shadows and light, tragedy and humor, it is a stirring tribute not only to a dark chapter in Africa’s past, but also to the bright days that preceded it.

Advance Galley Reviews

The"small country" referenced in the title is Burundi in the 1990s. The book is a novel but reads very much like a memoir. This story, to some extent, is like reading two different books. Most of the book sets up Gabriel's childhood; the story reads like a coming of age story of a young boy. Then arrives the brutal story of war, genocide, and its innocent victims. The ending surprised me, and I am left with the question if that too parallels Gaël Faye's own life. Read my complete review at Reviewed for Penguin First to Read.

"I used to think I was exiled from my country. But, in retracing the steps of my past, I have understood that I was exiled from my childhood. Which seems so much crueler." Breathtaking in its simplicity and complexity, this is the story of a childhood and how it was lost during a war that the protagonist Gaby didn't really understand. This is a story of how a biracial boy learns that I cannot choose or fully embrace any one of his identities, they are determined for him by the circumstances of the times. He can be all of the things that he is and none of them all at once, different parts are emphasized based on who wields the power. Through his eyes we get to see how a country and a people are torn apart, how neighbors and friends become mortal enemies, and the cruelty of humanity when the right elements combine and fester.

Wow. What a beautiful and powerful read! A must read! The prose is so innocent, poetic and lyrical but the story is so incredibly crude and real! It is a fiction story but it reads as a memoir because it is such an emotionally charged and chilling story! Like many stories based in true events, it makes you reflect about how humankind doesn't seem to learn from history and how we the make the same mistakes over and over again! It is also a very interesting take on these historical facts because Gabriel is half white and lives in a white community. His mother is a refugee so there is so much human depth! It is about identity, displacement, racism, and of course about war and genocide. That part will shake you to the core! This book was such a joy to read, from the writing to the subject matter, to the way it makes you experience Burundi so intimately. The country, the politics, the people, even the food are described so naively and just fantastically! Thank you First To Read for the opportunity to read such a beautiful and important book!

In a country were the shape of ones nose determines if they are friend or foe. Born of a white father and Rwandan mother Gabriel who seems isolated from the violence and prejudice finds himself facing a different world. Innocence meets the violence after a coup. It is novel of a young man looking out of his sheltered and fragile life.

Small Country affords a rather interesting look into a traumatic event. It's a short book overall, but the book had a decent plot and emotional impact.

This book is fairly short but really packs a lot into those pages. This is a story about 10 year old Gabby who lives with his French father and Rwadan mother in Burundi. The story starts out with Gabby starting to come to age but then his country starts to change and he is caught in the midst of the war that breaks out. This book just takes place in the span of 2 years but it shows how the war in both Rwanda and Burundi affected him and his family. Though I was an adult when the Rwadan genocide in the 90's occurred - I was definitely not familiar with the brutality. There was one quote that really stuck out to me - "Genocide is an oil slick: those who don't drown in it are polluted for life." I felt like this book is great to really give those that aren't familiar a sense of empathy of refugees and what life must be like for them. Thanks to First to Read for giving me this Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review.

Small Country is decent - what I do appreciate about this book is that it gives us a pretty good glimpse into the events in Rwanda/Burundi during the 1990's. These were events that I remember hearing about as a youngster but didn't really pursue in depth. How horrible! Overall, I would recommend.

This is such a tough book to rate. I applaud the author's courage in revisiting the unthinkable childhood trauma he endured, and I'm always glad for a chance to read stories by populations who have routinely been silenced, either by war or by discrimination (or in this case, both). People need to read these stories, and I'm glad Faye had the courage to tell his. At the same time, I wish it had been more of a novel than a thinly fictionalized memoir. The descriptions of Burundi are beautiful and vivid, but the characters felt flat and inert to me. They spend a lot of time sitting around delivering expository dialogue, and Gaby himself is almost completely passive until the last few pages of the book. I wanted more of a story rather than just descriptions of what things were like before and then after the war broke out. I'm still glad I read it - like I said, people need to know about these things. But this particular book left me wanting more.

Small Country does an excellent job of setting the stage - the initial stories of 10-year-old Gaby are engaging and remind you deeply of the feelings of being that age. The relationships with his sister and parents as seen through his eyes are poignant in their own way. The novel felt very autobiographical (which I suppose makes sense, given the author's context). As the story progresses, you can't help but be drawn in - the prose in this translation is compelling (which is not always a guarantee).

This is a coming of age story centered around a loss of innocence. Gabriel (Gaby) is around 10, half-French and half-Rwandan, living in Burundi. It’s just a year or so before the Rwandan genocide that everyone knows about, and though tensions are growing both between political factions and between Hutus and Tutsis, Gaby lives removed from this. Living a fairly privileged life, his biggest concerns and past-times are (as they should be for youth) stealing mangoes from the neighbors, his new bike, and the gang of friend he runs around with. This shift in his transition from childhood starts with his parents’ separation and is quickly followed by many of his friends becoming more and more politicized as they lose family and friends to the onset of war. Gaby fights against being pulled into this storm, but in the end, his eleventh birthday party (one for the ages) marks a real transition out of the carelessness of youth and into a world that doesn’t discriminate in pain and sorrow. Something really interesting about this novel was that, though it’s listed as fiction, it has a strong feel of memoir to it. (And after reading about the author’s background, that really does not surprise me.) It has the jumpy quality of memoirs, where highlighted stories from childhood are told and bounced between, with less concern for timelines or consistent development than for making sure the “best” bits are told. In addition, this is a book in translation so there are definitely some parts that are less smooth, as far as wording or vernacular. Because of this, it took me a little bit to adjust to the flow, but once I did, things picked up quickly. And I don’t think that, by the end, that had very much bearing on my overall impressions. In fact, the moments of amazing description, ones that made you feel the breeze and the sun and the rain and the sounds of music or insects or gunshots, far outweigh the awkward moments. There were many times while I was reading that I truly felt like I was there with Gaby, terrified of jumping off a high dive or with dripping mango juice all down my arms or laying in bed eavesdropping on his mother’s horrific stories of burying her slaughtered family alone. The way the transition from the pranks and worries of childhood give way to the bullets and deaths or war and genocide is intuitively written. And it’s even more heartbreaking to see it in this light, both through the eyes of a child but also, through the eyes of someone who saw the idyll that was his country before the war and sees what it has become after as a result of hate and fear. What Gaby sees happening, the new choices he is forced to make, what becomes a new normal, is terrible as anything can be. But through it all he deals with it as any terrified youth losing his carefree days might – it’s very relatable in that way. It’s also so hard to see what it was like for him in such a privileged situation and imagine how much worse it still could be. The one other thing I want to mention is the affect of the genocide and loss on his mother, which was probably one of the saddest parts that we see happening – illustrating plainly that surviving something is not the end…and that living with those experiences might be even worse. I read that this book quickly became a bestseller when first released in France and I can completely see why. It’s an accessible representation of an unfathomably evil time and, past the facts and numbers we all know, really puts a human face on tragedy. It’s a short, fast read, but still manages to show the drastic-ness and unreality of the Rwandan genocide, what (at a basic level) led to it, how unreasonably-founded and dangerous societal factions can be, and how from one generation to another these thoughts and feelings take root and perpetuate. An affecting and illustrative narration of coming of age and loss of innocence.

This short book packs quite the punch. Set in the 1990s in Burundi, it tells the story of 10 year old Gaby during a time of political unrest, war, genocide, and turmoil. At first, bi-racial Gaby, the son of a French father and Rwandan Tutsi mother, is far removed from the political unrest and conflict. Yet, as the book progresses, the circle closes in closer and closer to Gaby and his family; ultimately impacting his and his family's lives in severe ways. The story focuses on Gaby and it is through his narration that we get the story. So, if you're looking for a book that "explains" the ethnic cleansing of this time, this is not that book; rather, it is one child's story of personal loss, tragedy, and coming of age in that time. Gaby actually refers to Anne Frank's Diary at one point in the book without naming it explicitly, and Small Country reminded me greatly of that book. Gael Faye gives a voice to a character who is not commonly found in mainstream literature in the US and I learned a lot from this book and Gaby's trials and tribulations. Thank you to First to Read for my free ARC of this book.

This short book was... okay. It had touching moments, but overall I thought it was a little disjointed.

This is a Coming of Story, and I love Coming of Age stories especially in African literature. The book started slowly, and it seemed there was no clear direction where the story was heading. The narration was beautiful in the beginning, but the dialogues I thought were a bit forced and trite. As the story evolved, Faye drew me in. This is a strong story of late 20th century conflict in Burundi, but that story cannot be told without telling the story of Rwanda. Rwanda is the supporting actor in this book, but the reader who is unfamiliar with the history will clearly understand that in many ways what occurred in Rwanda was the same in essence as what occurred in Burundi. I appreciate Faye centering this novel in Burundi because Burundi has been overlooked by history except by those erstwhile Burundi specialists. I intend to use this text when I develop a new course on Conflict in Post-Independence Africa, or even in a World History course. I did find some problems in the book. First, I would have like a bit more reaching back for more of the back story of colonial Burundian history. There are hints at animosity toward the French, but more is needed for the reader. Second, and this is related, more is needed to bring to focus the backstory of ethnic rivalry and tension in Burundi between Tutsi and Hutu. Third, the main character is mixed race. This aspect of his life is present, but unexplored in a substantive way. Other than that, I found the book riveting as the story progressed. It's deeply moving, and at times, philosophical about war and ethnic conflict.

It took me a bit to fully immerse myself in this book. At first I merely thought it was interesting. This is not a bad feature of a book, but for a shorter novel that is looking to set a scene for the emotional punch that comes in the latter half of the story, I was hoping for a deeper set of stories to set the scene surrounding the relationships. However, Faye does build the world and Gaby's story drew me in for the authentic view of events surrounding a 10-year old who starts out privileged and naive, but does not end that way. Overall, I recommend.

Small Country by Gael Faye is an amazing novel. So much packed into a small book. It really opened a new perspective on a a bit of recent history that I was familiar with but not well versed in, the ethnic genocides in Rwanda, Burundi and neighboring areas. It put a real personal face on it, in seeing how the events leading up to the wars impact a young boy and his family. A number of perspectives are looked at through his eyes, his mother who is of the same ethnic group that genocide is directed at and has family members killed, the father a European, the household staff, the boy and his sister, the boy and his group of friends. All in a a very enlightening and emotionally intense read that I could recommend to all mature readers.

To be a short book, it is so full of descriptions and emotions. Children travel from being young and vulnerable to teenagers in adventure to young adults fighting for their lives. I did not enjoy reading of all the turmoil and killing. But I did enjoy the writing and the use of language making you feel a witness of the story. This book certainly gives a perspective that everyone needs to read.

This novel is written in short glimpses of 10 year old Gaby's life in Burundi--at first a life of play and privilege, and gradually one impacted and devastated by civil war. I have read a number of other novels and memoirs describing what happened in Burundi and Rwanda, and this book does a good job of showing the inescapable escalations of war, as it moves closer and closer to Gaby's family and own life, even to someone who was not familiar with this history. Gaby himself is an introspective character, who finds (some) refuge in his letters to his French penpal and the novels his neighbor lends him, and some of this book is beautiful (it's also brutal and agonizing reading at times, as one might expect considering what is going on around Gaby). In the end, I felt more distant from his experience than I have from other accounts. I think it lets the reader have too many chances to escape, even as Gaby (unlike other members of his family) eventually does.

I loved reading this book. The characters gave so much meaning to the culture of Burundi and the surrounding African countries. Besides the tragic ethnic/tribal wars, at the heart of the story is the main character Gabriel(Gaby) and his group of friends. I love the dynamics of each friendship, their love for each other and their home country. I was also intrigued by the different family structures in the book especially Gaby's bi-racial family and how their roles were defined in Burundi society at the time. Although the book doesn’t have a fairy tale ending the ending provided a sort of closure. I didn't want Gaby's story to end. I wanted to see what would happen for him, his family and also for the people who still reside in Burundi. I would recommend this book to everyone as it brings a different perspective of what goes on in a small African country far away that doesn’t get enough media attention.

This short book is written in the form of a memoir by the 33 year old Gabriel who is now living in France. The story is set in Burundi during 1992 and 1993 when Gabriel aged 10/11 is living in an expat neighborhood with his younger sister Ana and their French father Michel and Rwandan (Tutsi) mother Yvonne. This is the second book I've read this month about the genocide in Rwanda. The first book (nonfiction) told me that it was the Belgians who had sorted the Rwandans into ethnic groups Tutsis, Hutus and Twa pygmies. Tutsis and Hutus lived in the same land, had the same religion and spoke the same languages so nothing really separated them except some artificial sorting imposed by Europeans on Africans. This book doesn't deal with the history of the ethnic conflict, other than Michel's opinion that the difference was based on the shape of their noses. Actually, in the case of each book I felt like I was inspecting a house by looking through a pinhole. The stories were very personal and focused, but I'm still missing the larger picture. Yvonne had to flee Rwanda in 1963 when she was 4 after her family home was burned and she still feels like an outsider in Burundi. Perhaps that is why she is the only member of the family who acknowledges the dangers that are coming. Gabriel enjoyed a relatively stress-free childhood with his friends, until a military coup in Burundi wiped out its recent experimentation with democracy and the reports of killings in Rwanda could no longer be ignored. The family eventually faced threats of violence from both the Hutus and the Tutsis. However, the majority of this book is about Gabriel hanging out with his friends and I can't say I really felt his pain when things went badly because there was a certain remoteness in the writing. For the most part Gabriel viewed the war with his peripheral vision. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

I wasn't really educated on what occurred in Africa before this book, however this did not stop me from understanding. I found Gabriel to be an extremely heart felt character and could not begin to imagine the devastation he faced at a young age. I liked how the beginning and the end of the book tied together and Gabriel was able to face his past. This was just an okay book for me. I really felt that the last half of the book was incoherent in many ways and it is hard for me to follow at times. Thanks for the ARC, First to Read.

This tale of the war in Burundi and the massacre of Rwanda is told from a point of view just removed enough to make it bearable, just short enough to get through without losing courage. Gaby is a child of mixed race parents, of privilege in Burundi, and his mother was a Tutsi refugee from Rwanda with family still in her native country. Gaby and his father work hard to stay neutral for as long as possible, try to avoid taking sides and getting swallowed by the violence. The language is simple but beautiful, and Gaby discovers books in the midst of the violence, lending a poetry to his last thoughts in the book. The effect is heartbreaking but beautiful. I got a copy to review from First to Read.

"It's not the terrestrial distance that makes the journey long, but the time that has elapsed." I received a free copy of this ebook from in exchange for an honest review. This is a hard book to rate. The content is pretty brutal. The author captures how trauma sits with someone forever and how things shape us. The story talks about the genocide in Rwanda and yet only about a third or so of the book takes place during that time. While we hear stories and experience the loss along with some of these characters the book didn't quite resonate with me the way I expected. I was hoping for something maybe more reflective or focusing more on answers and to me this read more like someone still looking for answers. This book focuses on pain and how traumas stick with us. It's a perspective not often shared about the Rwandan genocide.

While I've read other things that are about the Rwandan genocide, this book gives a slightly different view of what happened. It focuses instead on Burundi, which also had it's own war. It shows how what happens in one country, or area, can influence another area. However, instead of focusing directly on the violence that occurred, it gives us glancing views of the horror that occurred. This is because the story focuses on Gaby, a young boy, who tries to keep hold of hind childhood in the midst of horrific events. This book is slow building and it pulled me in without my even realizing it.

Since this is a story that takes place in Africa, there's a lot of 'different' word spellings to navigate...of French & African names/origin....i.e. places like Cyangugu, Uvira, Bukavu, Bujumbura, Lake Tanganyika & there's the language of Kinyarwanda. Since this is a true story of a family's experience of life & death in Rwanda & Burundi, before/during/after the horrific genocide that took place there in the early 1990's....navigating those strange spellings is trivial. Another story of seemingly impossible survival. I did learn quite a bit about some of the events that surrounded that conflict between the Hutu & Tutsi. I thought the author was somehow (?!) able to convey the horror/violence/gruesomeness of the scene....without 'much ado'..... It was a fast, compelling read. I received this e-ARC from Penguin's First-To-Read Giveaway program, in exchange for my own unbiased, fair/honest review.

A story full of grit and raw beauty. Small country took me in and how, totally unexpected. If anyone’s looking to acquaint themselves with a very significant chapter in Africa’s history in a mesmerising, magnetic sort of way, this simple book does it. Immediately after finishing the book, I googled Gael Faye, Burundi genocide as well as googling jacaranda trees, etc. Do you see the spectrum here? From the descriptions of the pulchritudinous geography that is Africa to the bloody riot that is Africa, this books constantly juxtaposes these two paradoxical aspects, leaving the reader awestruck constantly. The story is about a boy, from a privileged family, living through one of the worst chapters in his country’s history. Although privileged, the boy has his own share of exposure to the unforgiving dark side of anarchic elements too. The boy has seen glorious and peaceful days. And almost suddenly his world turns upside down when he is faced with domestic conflicts, and political conflicts messing with personal choices. And lots of sudden violence and bloodshed. It’s a very simple, humiliating story. It shows how humans are ruthlessly capable of creating unwanted barriers and then destroying each other on the basis of something they invented. It’s an almost typical story of human emotions, ego, friendships and relationships, mental turmoils, of a war-ravaged country. It touches a chord. It stirs you up and rouses you. It shakes you up. It’s moving. It’s devastating. It’s beautiful. I sure hope I’d have been able to read this in French but the English translation is very beautiful. The reading is very easy making this book a page turner. The characters are well developed and the imagery so vivid. Overall, I’m very glad I chose this book as my ARC in an attempt to also explore stories of other worlds written in languages I’m not fully familiar with and by people who are not known to me. 4 stars out of 5.


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