“At last we rounded the bend and descended into Gisenyi, on the shores of Lake Kivu. That’s where Mother slowed down. The town moved slowly past the window of our pickup, like film through Father’s home projector. We drove past the lake, sparkling and blue, in the direction of the border with Zaire. We passed the children in their khaki shorts, the foam-mattress shops and the decaying colonial buildings in every colour of ice-cream.” – p37 of The Flower Plantation by Nora Anne Brown
I suspect it is almost impossible to write a novel set in Rwanda without it being overshadowed by the country’s horrendous genocide of 1994, but in her debut novel The Flower Plantation Nora Anne Brown does an excellent job in giving us at least a little bit of time to enjoy the beauty of the country before the atrocities inevitably force themselves on the characters and their lives.
This is the story of Arthur Baptiste, the child of an English mother and a half-Belgian, half-Tutsi father who grows up on a flower plantation run by his mother. Just five years old when the novel’s action really starts, Arthur is an unusual child. He find himself unable to speak and is obsessed by butterflies and other forms of wildlife. Always conscious of his differences from other children, he is uncomfortable around them, and rather than go to the local school his haphazard education takes place on the plantation.
I enjoyed learning to love this Rwanda that Arthur’s mother chooses to make her home. Despite the many challenges and setbacks she faces on the plantation, Martha is determined to stay, even when events from the outside intervene. And while the novel is told through Arthur’s eyes, his mother emerges as a fascinating character; she drives too fast and drinks too much, but is a fierce and passionate woman who somehow creates her own reality despite all the evidence contradicting it.
There is a definite undercurrent of violence throughout the novel, but at its center we are experiencing Arthur’s world; one of family, childhood friendship and nature. There is a light and gentleness which defies the growing tension.
You will certainly come away from this novel knowing more about Rwanda and its history. Through the stories Arthur’s father tells him, we learn about villainous kings and wicked queen mothers, of power struggles and bloody battles. But while they might sound like ancient fairy stories, they eventually lead us to 1994 and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis by their Hutu countrymen.
Lakes, mountains and forests…
“It was more of a meadowy path with silver eucalyptus leaves shimmering above us. There were hypericum trees with bright-yellow flowers and veronicas too, in lavender and white. It felt like a magical glade – as if it was our secret – and that felt good.” – p100
Brown’s Rwanda takes us to Gisenyi on the shores of Lake Kivu which borders Zaire, or Democratic Republic of Congo, as it is known today.
Arthur and his friend Beni spend many hours exploring nearby forest which is home to mountain gorillas and a string of volcanoes. Think Gorillas in the Mist here, and in fact, there is a female character who is inspired by the late zoologist Dian Fossey.
Gisenyi itself is described with all its colonial quirkiness; the overly bureaucratic post office, the chaotic market and the relative luxury of the lakeside hotel adopted by tourists in safari jackets and long socks. Much of this remains, and to tell us more about it, Brown has kindly answered some of the many questions I had after reading this novel….
Rwanda is a mysterious place for many people, the genocide perhaps being the only thing many are familiar with – what are you hoping this book will add to people’s understanding of the country?
That it’s a place of great beauty and grace that has a rich history that goes far beyond the genocide. And also to show that the west played a big part in the making of the genocide, that it wasn’t simply ‘tribal warfare’.
Tell us a little bit about your own history with Rwanda?
My first visit was with friends who worked for the UN. I fell utterly in love with the country. When I returned home I read as much as I could about Rwanda and wrote the first chapter of The Flower Plantation. My second visit was to the Imbabazi orphanage/flower plantation where I worked as a writer in residence and teacher, and began the novel in earnest. My third trip was cancelled due to being late on in my pregnancy. I hope to return with my son as soon as I can.
You certainly bring about some of the beauty of the country in the book – what advice would you give to people wanting to visit the area in which the novel is set ?
Do as the locals do – take the buses, eat from street vendors, shop at the market, try a bit of the language, swim in the lake and, if you’re able, visit someone’s home.
How would you describe Gisenyi as it is today?
Gisenyi is making the most of its beauty and the nearby gorilla population. There was quite a bit of building work going on when I was last there and an increasing number of nice hotels. It’s a place where politicians congregate as well as tourists, so money is trickling in. Having said that, the heart of Gisenyi remains the same and many of the places in the book are there to be seen: the post office, the market and the shop.
Tell me about the forest where Arthur and Beni explore…
The forest that Beni and Arthur explore is imagined but the research came from the opening chapters of Gorillas in the Mist so its accurate in terms of vegetation. The inspiration for the forest, cave and crater came from someone I met on my second trip who told me about a walk you can do that took in all of these sights – sadly I never got to do the walk due to a bad back.
If you could suggest three things for people to do on a visit to the area – what would they be?
- Atelier de Poupees, Avenue du Marche, Gisenyi – a project set up for widows of the genocide. They make beautiful dolls, bags and dresses, all of which can be bought in their little shop or ordered and made for collection the next day.
- Maison St Benoit – a convent about fifteen minutes south of Gisenyi where you can stay in perfect peace for a donation.
- Ubumwe Community Centre – a centre for the disabled. They do great work and they have products for sale that have been made by those who attend. All profits are fed back into the centre.
Is there somewhere very specifically related to the novel that people could visit? Perhaps somewhere the characters themselves have been?
The Imbabazi Orphanage/Flower Plantation, 7km from Kabali (approx 30km from Gisenyi) – the place that inspired Arthur’s home.
Do you have a favourite cafe, bar or restaurant to recommend?
- White Rocks Bistro in town.
- Hotel Malahide – a short drive out of Gisenyi but absolutely stunning.
- Peaceland Hotel – for crepes and great views
Is the Hotel Kivu based on a real place? Could we stay there?
The Hotel Kivu is an amalgamation of several hotels in Gisenyi but it is perhaps most like the Gorillas Hotel on the shores of Lake Kivu.
What about a favourite place to sit and read while on our visit?
Serena Hotel bar and beach – not an authentic Rwandan experience but a great place to rest weary feet.
Will you be remaining in Africa for your next novel?
I hope to write a novel set in 1950s Kenya based around the Happy Valley Set and the Mau Mau uprising.
Anything else you’d like to add for people interested in visiting this part of Rwanda?
Gisenyi borders the DRC and the city of Goma. When I was there the cost of crossing the border was minimal. It’s rather more expensive now, and of course Goma has its troubles, but if you can stretch to it I’d definitely recommend a trip into the city with a guide. The comparison is a good way of seeing just how rapidly Rwanda has developed, how ordered it is and how fecund it is too.
If you do decide to visit this area of Rwanda, you will be right near to the the Volcanoes National Park, the base for Dian Fossey’s groundbreaking work with gorillas and her fight against poachers. The park runs limited gorilla tours as well as trips to the lakes and volcanoes. It is heartening to see that Rwanda’s beautiful landscape and natural habitat are attracting people from all over the world. Reading The Flower Plantation is bound to get those feet itching to make the journey yourself.
A big thank you to Nora Anne Brown for taking the time to tell us more and to Alma Books for their complimentary copy of the novel.
I highly recommend it,
MORE IDEAS ON THINGS TO DO IN GISENYI:
One family’s experience of Gisenyi and staying at Maison St Benoit
A travel blogger’s suggestions for things to do in Rwanda, including Gisenyi
Another blogger’s perfect day in Gisenyi with some great photographs!
Just a quick note to thank you for all your votes on which shelves I should be building next at the Packabook Store.
Your choices have all been counted and I can now inform you of our upcoming destinations.
I hereby give you the latest league table for our next country!
I’m loving seeing such a wide variety of countries on the list, but this of course makes it harder for a single place to edge ahead. In fact, we had a tie between Myanmar/Burma and Israel and the Palestinian Territories — two destinations that have had to go in the Nepalese hat for a draw before.
And here they go again….
This time Myanmar (or Burma – I’ll let you read this explanation at the BBC as to why there are two different names) makes it through. I am really looking forward to this one, as is one of our keenest Packabookers, Mona. Mona has made at least one trip to Myanmar, though I think it might be two, and I’m hoping she’ll be offering us some fabulous reading suggestions…
Moving on to U.S. states… here’s the table!
As you can see we have an overwhelming winner for this one, so it’s time to pack those bags for Florida. A big thank you to Linda and Mandy for your votes this time round and to Kelly and Marla from a previous round.
And a clear winner too for our U.K. county…
It seems you are hankering for a city-break this time, with London narrowly defeating Kent and Devon. Choosing novels set in London is going to be an endless delight, as I suspect new books are being published in my home city faster than I can add them – so while I won’t be offering you every single London-set novel out there, I can guarantee a fabulous selection…
Right – loads of work to do to get started…
Apologies if you didn’t get your choices this time, but your votes stay on the table for the next round, so they will have a head start then.
See you soon…
With the Argentina, Arizona and Dorset bookshelves now safely constructed in the Packabook Book Store, it’s time to turn our attention to the next country, U.S. state and English county you’d like me to focus on.
As usual, I’d love you to give me your votes for each in the comments below, on the Packabook Facebook page or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org – I will add your selections to our previous tally and declare a winner for each category.
Don’t forget – you have three votes 1) Country 2) U.S. state and 3) English county – you could choose somewhere that’s currently in the news, your next holiday destination or just somewhere that you have never read a book about before. It’s up to you!
You can vote for places you have put a bid in for before, or you can choose new ones… they will all be added to the previous tally. The list of places to choose from is below. Voting closes on Sunday September 1st and I will announce the winners soon after.
Which ones will you go for? I can’t wait to see where you are sending me next!
Burkina Faso (Burkina, Upper Volta)
Central Africa Republic
DR Congo (Congo-Kinshasa, Belgian Congo, Zaire)
Guinea (French Guinea, Gineau-Conakry)
Isle of Man
Israel & the Palestinian Territories
Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire)
Palau (Pelew, Belau)
Papua New Guinea
São Tomé and Príncipe
Sudan (North Sudan)
Suriname (Dutch Guiana)
Swaziland (Ngwane, Swatini)
Trinidad and Tobago
Turks and Caicos Islands
Tuvalu (Ellice Islands)
American States + Washington D.C.
English Counties – with some adaption for practical purposes, making places easier to find for those from other countries!
Isle of White
As requested in our last round of voting – I’m delighted to offer you a selection of novels from Argentina. So if you were ever planning to dust off your tango shoes and explore this land of mountains, lakes, steamy forests and even steamier dance clubs, then now’s the time.
While tango does of course features in a number of novels on our list, by far the most common topic for books set in Argentina appears to be the Dirty War. This period of state repression in the late 70s and early 80s when tens of thousands of dissenters were kidnapped, tortured, killed or ‘disappeared’ has left deep scars in Argentina. There have even been allegations that Pope Francis collaborated with the regime at the time – something he has strongly denied.
In Carolina de Robertis’s recently published Perla, a young woman is forced to confront the past and the role of her father in the Dirty War after a mysterious visitor turns up at her door. What she discovers takes us to the heart of the atrocities of the time.
The novel has attracted glowing reviews from critics and readers alike. Here is a selection of five-star reviews from Amazon.
“In my opinion, and I have read many novels about Argentina’s Dirty War, Perla is the masterpiece.”
“I often went back and read lines twice or three times, marvelling at their beauty. And when I reached the end, I broke down in sobs, not because of a manufactured sad ending but because the story was so very powerful.”
“ ‘Perla’ is one of the finest novels I’ve read in years; the beauty, the growth and the internal questions that it asks of it’s readers are both beautiful and life changing.”
Nathan Englander captured the grief of families throughout Argentina with his novel The Ministry of Special Cases. In this story, Kaddish and Lillian Poznan find themselves among the thousands of parents desperately trying to find information on their children after their rebellious teenage son ‘disappears’ in 1976. Here are some of the generous reviews for this heart-breaking novel…
“If you choose books for their clever and detailed plots, Ministry will disappoint you. But if you revel in complex characters and writing that transports you to a particular time and place, then Ministry will suck you in and keep you mesmerized.”
“This universal story of identity and community takes my breath away.”
“This is one of the most beautiful, lyrical and heart-breaking books I have read this year. It is also one of the most philosophically challenging. Englander’s language is transcendent and his ear for a specific South American Jewish manner of speech is pitch perfect. You will not be disappointed.”
It is almost impossible to imagine what this time must have been like for Argentinians, especially as there is still so little closure for the families involved. Up to 30,000 people disappeared and since then, only 600 have been found and identified. Recently the BBC published this article on its website in which it talks of new evidence on where bodies may have been disposed of at the time.
Don’t cry for me Argentina…
If, like me, you grew up belting out the soundtrack to the musical Evita in your bathroom, your interest in Argentina may be piqued by two novels from Tomas Eloy Martinez based on former president Juan Domingo Perón and his wife Eva.
Santa Evita is a fascinating story which explores the obsession Argentinians had with Eva by following the path of her embalmed body after she died of cancer at the age of 33. While this story is a mix of fact and fiction, it is true that her corpse disappeared a few years after her death, turning up in Milan 16 years later. It was then flown to Spain where the exiled Juan and his new wife Isabel apparently kept it in a bedroom and sometimes even on their dining room table. In 1976 Eva was eventually laid to rest in her family’s tomb in Buenos Aires. You can just imagine what a novelist can get up to with that basis for a story! Here are some of the five star reviews…
“This book was so powerful. It drew me in, kept me glued, and haunted me for WEEKS after I put it down.”
“If the facts about her life aren’t enough to get you hooked on this book, the circumstances surrounding the fate of her embalmed corpse are more then enough to draw you into the story. Be careful, though, because even after you put the book down, you still will feel Evita’s magnetism pulling at you.”
“The story of her wandering cadaver is haunting, tragic and at times quite hilarious, and always mind-blowing.”
Perhaps less intriguing, but still able to give us a glimpse of Argentina’s slide into the violence of the 1970s, Martinez’s The Perón Novel provides a portrait of Eva’s husband Juan following his return from exile in 1973.
Seduced by Buenos Aires…
Returning to modern times; if novels are anything to go by, it seems a ticket to Buenos Aires is what’s in order if you are a woman looking to flee your ordinary life to find a bit of excitement.
Image by Carlos Luque via Wikimedia Commons
Take The Foreigners by Maxine Swann, in which two women – American and Austrian – seek passion and vitality on their travels to Argentina, while in The Buenos Aires Broken Hearts Club by Jessica Morrison, serial life-planner Cassandra Moore seeks spontaneity in this bewitching city when her life in Seattle falls apart.
And finally, we turn to the tango. There’s bound to be some tango in the two novels above, but here are two other books in which it plays a central role.
Tomas Eloy Martinez is back with us for The Tango Singer in which a New York graduate student (a bloke this time!) travels to Buenos Aires in search of an elusive, unrecorded tango singer, giving us a fantastic tour of the city in the process. And in Wolfram Fleischhauer’s Fatal Tango, a dancer turns dangerous, kidnapping and torturing the father of his dancing partner.
By now, I’m hoping you have been thoroughly enticed by the city of Buenos Aires and the fascinating history of Argentina. Try one of these novels or the many more over at Packabook’s Argentina shelf, and I’ll see you in a sultry dance club somewhere…
“Amid the several million or so souls that inhabit this city, what a happy accident it is, I consider, what an obliterating coincidence that we have found each other. What have I done to deserve this, to be so singled out?” – Seducing Ingrid Bergman p96
I discovered the novel Seducing Ingrid Bergman (which I talk about in the video above) after reading this article about war photographer Robert Capa. The article included the heartbreaking story of how most of the negatives for the photographs Capa took during the D-Day landings at Normandy in 1944 were destroyed before a single print was made, due to a mistake in the London photo lab of Life Magazine. I cannot imagine Capa’s frustration at this after putting his life in danger and witnessing such bloodshed. It makes the few surviving iconic images all the more precious (their appears to be a difference of opinion as to whether there were 10 or 11 of them, depending on where you read about it!)
I wanted to know more about this good looking Hungarian who lived life on the edge, found solace in women and drink and put himself in enormous danger so the world could witness global conflict, only to die after stepping on a land mine in Vietnam at the age of 40.
What a gift then to find a highly-praised novel in which Capa himself is one of the main characters. In Paris for the city’s liberation at the end of World War Two, Capa is at a bit of a loss. What does a war photographer do now that peace has broken out? Capa and his friend, writer Irwin Shaw, find themselves at the Ritz when who should arrive but Ingrid Bergman, the married Swedish-born movie star, who has taken the world by storm with films such as Casablanca and Gaslight.
Capa is smitten immediately and it is not long before he charms his way into Bergman’s affections and the beginning of an intense relationship. It was more than an affair for Bergman, who wanted to marry Capa but…. well, I think I should leave it for you to read the novel to see how it all ended up…you’ll get no spoilers from me!
We see a little of Paris throughout the book, especially as Bergman and Capa take to some famous streets, restaurants and nightclubs for their somewhat clandestine meetings, and it’s great to get a sense of what the city was like during this time of liberation.
“The newspapers are full of the Japanese surrender. V-J Day. People swarm in the streets with renewed fervour, waving flags and handkerchiefs, many clustered around boards where the front pages of the newspapers are displayed. Ingrid is with me on the back of a jeep as I take photographs. We’re driven slowly as part of an improvised victory parade through the wildly celebrating crowds.”– p68
While this is a work of fiction, it is highly researched, and much of it based on autobiographies by both Capa and Bergman. How much of it is “the truth” is always questionable in novels such as this, but it appears to capture enough of the man to help bring his work alive, and if you read it, you will always feel you know a little of the photographer himself whenever you see his images.
This part of Capa’s life is not the only novel in which he features. Susana Fortes’s Waiting for Robert Capa (which I have not yet read) is the story of the complicated relationship between Capa and one of the first female photojournalists to die on the frontline, Gerda Taro. The novel explores their lives and careers as the pair re-invent themselves from young radical Jewish exiles living in Paris by the name of André Friedmann and Gerta Pohorylle to two of the world’s most celebrated war photographers. Changing their names and re-inventing the art of war photography, the two produced some of the most recognised images of the Spanish Civil War. Read more about their relationship here.
There is much more to the Robert Capa story than I have room for here, but if you’d like to know more about his extraordinary life, here are some suggestions.
- Read the novel Seducing Ingrid Bergman
- Read the novel Waiting for Robert Capa
- Read Capa’s memoir Slightly Out of Focus
- Read Bergman’s autobiography My Story
- See the D-Day and other Normandy landing photos online
- Watch this documentary about Capa on YouTube, which includes comments by Bergman’s daughter Isabella Rossellini
- Consider this hefty book which contains more than 900 of his images or head off to the International Center of Photography in New York, a photography school and museum founded by Capa’s brother Cornell, where much of his work is on permanent display.
- Watch the documentary The Mexican Suitcase which tells the amazing story of how three lost boxes of negatives, mainly shot by Capa, Taro and fellow photographer David “Chim” Seymour during the Spanish Civil War were found in a closet in Mexico in 2007. The 4,500 negatives had disappeared from Capa’s Paris studio at the beginning of World War Two.
And as a special treat, there are two films currently in development about Capa and his life – based on our two novels.
It seems that 100 years after his birth, Capa’s work is still having an impact, while his event-filled life continues to fascinate.