Many people think of the Rwandan genocide as a single, inexplicable eruption of violence that came out of nowhere, and ended with close to a million people being slaughtered within a matter of weeks. Most of the victims were from an ethnic group called the Tutsi. They were butchered, often at close range, by neighbors, former friends and even family members. Why? Because.

In Running the Rift, Naomi Benaron demonstrates that the genocide came slowly, over years, through the eyes of a young Tutsi man named Jean Patrick Nkuba. All Jean Patrick wants to do is run in the Olympics. He doesn’t want to start cutting people up with a panga because of some ideology no one understands. After all, the Belgians imposed the Tutsi and Hutu designation on the Rwandan people, many years before. Now they can only be told apart by ethnicity cards that everyone must carry.

Benaron’s focus on this one young man is part of the book’s brilliance. Our fear for Jean Patrick begins early and builds as we identify with him more and more. Had Benaron concentrated on too many people, the reader’s dread would have been too diffuse. Even as he’s roughed up, discriminated against and forced to pass as a Hutu just to fulfill his passion for running, Jean Patrick still refuses to believe that his country will descend into madness. Of course not—none of us would. What will happen in Rwanda, whose beauty Benaron rapturously describes, is incomprehensible in a society that thinks of itself as even a little bit civilized. The harassment will pass, Jean Patrick believes, and when he wins the Olympics and people find out he’s a Tutsi after all, the ridiculous prejudice against his people will be gone forever.

Of course, it doesn’t work out that way. But before the horror becomes inescapable, Jean Patrick lives his life. Benaron writes beautifully about the pain and exhilaration of being an Olympic-level runner (she’s a triathlete), of the friends Jean Patrick makes at school, of his savvy and taciturn coach, his loving mother and uncle and beloved brothers and sisters, the nutty white American professor he meets who insists on taking pictures of everything. Even the death of a cousin from malaria is sad, but ordinary. How can these good people know that in the months to come they’ll look back on such quotidian deaths with something like nostalgia? It’s unbearable; Benaron’s genius is that we read on despite it.

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