A ghastly scene in Sarah Stone's fascinating first novel, The True Sources of the Nile, starkly illustrates the saying that one death is a tragedy and a million are a statistic. At the beginning of a shocking massacre in the African nation of Burundi, on "such an ordinary day," the protagonist, a somewhat self-involved human rights worker named Annie, is huddled terrified in a jeep barreling down a road littered with corpses and pieces of corpses. One woman runs up to the vehicle, pleading for help; the jeep continues on, but not before Annie sees the woman felled by a man with a machete. The sight of this one woman will, we realize, torment Annie for years.
It says much about her skill as a writer that Stone can seamlessly weave this horror with the complications of Annie's adolescently passionate affair with Jean-Pierre, a Tutsi government official, and the news that her mother has contracted a possibly terminal cancer. Stone keeps all of these plots and subplots remarkably in focus. The dreadful, frustrating, but ordinary progress of Annie's mother's disease is juxtaposed with the unbelievable, unacceptable slaughter of members of Jean-Pierre's family. His well-behaved nieces and nephews stand in stark contrast to the indulged offspring of Annie's sisters the bitter Margaret, struggling with caring for their mother; her rebellious daughter and indifferent husband; and the loving but ditzy Lizzie, who believes in crystals and past life regression. Stone lucidly compares the suffocating traditionalism of Burundians and the sometimes unanchored freedoms of Americans. She also manages to capture Burundian resignation and American efficiency, as when Jean-Pierre's sister Christine is astonished by the concept of day planners.
Stone's style is clear and unadorned, but interspersed with descriptive gems like this one: "The airport was a series of white domes like a row of duck egg tops." After the massacre, Annie returns to her northern California home to find a kitchen "with an air of discombobulating normality. A few dishes in the sink, cartoons taped to the refrigerator, a jar of jam still on the table." Most people will never find themselves in the center of genocide, but Stone makes us feel the horror of it, even in the midst of the everyday.