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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Our Lady of the Nile

by
Scholastique Mukasonga


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Our Lady of the Nile



Title: Our Lady of the Nile
Author: Scholastique Mukasonga
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 244 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Our Lady of the Nile - US
Our Lady of the Nile - UK
Our Lady of the Nile - Canada
Notre-Dame du Nil - Canada
Our Lady of the Nile - India
Notre-Dame du Nil - France
Die Heilige Jungfrau vom Nil - Deutschland
Nostra Signora del Nilo - Italia
  • French title: Notre-Dame du Nil
  • Translated by Melanie Mauthner
  • Prix Renaudot, 2012

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Our Assessment:

B : fine insight into Rwanda and its long-festering ethnic conflicts

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 3/5/2012 Christine Rousseau
Wall St. Journal . 12/9/2014 Sam Sacks
World Lit. Today . 3-4/2015 Andreea Gabudeanu


  From the Reviews:
  • "D'une écriture âpre et tendue, Notre-Dame du Nil dépeint une société qui chemine inexorablement vers l'horreur, sous le regard impassible -- "neutralité" oblige -- des religieux belges et des professeurs français. Poignant et implacable." - Christine Rousseau, Le Monde

  • "The novel's abrupt transition from a na´ve coming-of-age story to a violent tragedy is jarring -- though surely it doesn't even begin to convey the shock of the reality." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "The novel reflects glimpses of a tension-filled past and slowly moves to uncover racial strife and the increase of genocidal actions against the Tutsi minority in Rwanda" - Andreea Gabudeanu, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Our Lady of the Nile is set largely at an elite boarding school for girls in Rwanda, the lycée 'Our Lady of the Nile', in the early 1970s. The school, located near what is considered the source of the Nile, is: "renowned in Belgium and elsewhere as a pioneering school, a model of female advancement in central Africa" -- not just the best lycée, but also the highest -- located at a breath-taking twenty-five hundred meters, up a proper distance from the capital (where the boys' school is), "far away from the temptations and evils of the big city".
       The students are the daughters of the rich and powerful -- relative matters in an only slowly modernizing nation -- and the school is a microcosm of the power structures of the Rwanda of the time: a dominant Hutu majority, a token Tutsi presence, and a Catholic Church/Belgian/French elite -- those running the school, and the teachers. Only two of the teachers are Rwandan: the teacher of Kinyarwanda (the local language), and the Sister who teaches history and geography; "she made a clear distinction between the two subjects: History meant Europe, and Geography, Africa. [...] Africa had no history".
       After being politically dominant for several decades, the Tutsi lost power and influence in the last period of Belgian colonial rule in Rwanda, and then when the country became independent in 1962; many fled the country. The period at the school is one of again increasing ethnic tension, fostered here in particular by Hutu girl Gloriosa; among the few Tutsis at the school are Veronica and Virginia, while some students are of mixed background. At this Catholic institution the school authorities are supportive of those in power, and shamefully don't see to it that the school is an independent and safe refuge from the politics of the day.
       Tutsi oppression continues in the country, but some believe or hope the school is a step beyond ethnic strife; so Leoncia, one of the students' mothers:

Leoncia felt reassured: Veronica was a student, and when you're a student, so she believed, it's as if you're no longer Hutu or Tutsi, but have taken on another "ethnicity": what the Belgians referred to as civilized.
       Instead, of course, cliquishness -- largely along ethnic lines -- reinforced by the political and professional family-ties make the school much like the rest of Rwanda of the time, the Tutsi students constantly aware of being at risk. 'Civilization' proves hard to come by, even in an (ostensibly) educational setting.
       Matters also aren't helped by the reactionary Church-folk who run the school and teach the girls: from their attitudes about the girls' periods to the inappropriate behavior of some male figures of authority, it's hardly an encouraging environment. Worse yet, they are unwilling to support the girls equally, beholden to other powers -- and, of course, blinded by their perverted Bible-centered world-view --, and thus fail to make the girls' welfare, in terms of proper education and safety, their primary concern.
       Manipulative Gloriosa is a pure 'mean girl', embracing ethnic hatred as a tool to enhance her own position and power; even as she knows she spreads lies, she rationalizes even the worst actions: "My father says we must never forget to frighten people". Ultimately she brings catastrophe down on the school -- a situation that is completely her fault, yet which she pays no price whatsoever for. The conclusion -- and the human toll -- are so chilling that Mukasonga resorts to a second-hand account of the events, having one student report to another on what happened -- unlike the rest of the book, in which the reader is led through events close-up and personally.
       Our Lady of the Nile is a school-novel of sorts, with variations of stories typical of the genre: the boyfriends (ranging from motorcycle-riding youths to ambassadors -- whose inappropriate behavior even the Sisters have to grudgingly accept); the preparations for the visit by the Belgian Queen; the odd Western local who has his own understanding of local history and mythology and pulls some of the students into his wild, creative vision; the passage from girl to woman. The setting -- both period and place -- add to the story, and Mukasonga gives a nice, convincing picture of parts of Rwanda-life at the time, with even Diane Fossey's near-by gorilla-work also coming into play; much, however, feels very autobiographical, episodes from a (school-)life, strung together without always fitting in the larger fiction-whole.
       For the most part quite well-written, and often interesting and moving, too much of Our Lady of the Nile feels jumbled together, no one story-line or character explored in sufficient depth. The characters are often fascinating as presented, but there's far too little effort in filling in background and providing proper context for them and their actions.
       This is also a novel with a great deal that is simply black and white -- with an emphasis on the black, as both Gloriosa and all the Sisters are abominations of human beings. While plausible, it nevertheless feels a bit too simple; again, more context might have helped here -- scenes between Gloriosa and her father, or a better sense of where the Sisters are coming from, rather than just who they are now.
       Rwanda's ugly history is woven well into the story (though the culmination of events coinciding so closely with the 1973 coup d'état also feels a bit too convenient) -- and the story is, of course, all the more powerful because readers are aware of what happened two decades later, the shocking mass-slaughter of 1994.
       A quite powerful novel of Rwanda, Our Lady of the Nile gives a good sense of life and conditions there in the early 1970s -- and the longstanding ethnic strife that took such a human toll, both before and after the period described here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 August 2014

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Links:

Our Lady of the Nile: Reviews: Scholastique Mukasonga: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga was born in 1956.

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© 2014-2015 the complete review

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