Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: loss of family, orphaning, war, war crimes, rape, death.
Goodreads Rating: 3 Stars
This novel has been all over #bookstagram, reading lists, and bookstore recommendations, so when a friend of mine whose opinion I trust (hi Megan!) said definitely read it, I finally said okay and downloaded the audiobook.
In the novel, we are introduced to Rwandan refugee Clemantine (not like the Cutie clementines, but Clem-AAn-teen) and her rough upbringing. Forced to flee her home in Rwanda, she and her family bounced from refugee camp to camp. There was no getting comfortable anywhere, and as time passed, her family was slowly, painfully torn apart. Clemantine eventually gets the chance to immigrate to the United States and is taken in by a sponsor family, and as she grows up, she gets the opportunity to speak about her experience- including on Oprah- and to go to a prestigious college.
When the chance to return to her homeland is offered through her college, she goes only to find that so many things have changed, including herself and her personal identity. A little lost and confused, Clemantine has to piece herself, her life, and her roots back together. This is the story she shares with us all.
In the mix of this is the story of The Girl Who Smiles Beads, a story that stuck with Clemantine throughout the years. She relates to this character, and understands the struggle of a women who has what she most desperately wanted, but still feels incomplete.
The audiobook narrator (Robin Miles) did a fantastic job evoking Clemantine’s emotional tale, and there was a surprise treat of hearing the author’s additional commentary at the end. Though most of the novel was pretty heartbreaking, there were times where Clematine came off as a little arrogant- in the “you’ll never understand what I went through” sort of way- that made it a little difficult to empathize with her at times. The whole point of this kind of novel, in my opinion, is to help others understand what you went through, and it’s makes it more difficult when you purposefully keep them from doing so. I relate that to when people say something like “you have no idea”, which is such a pet peeve of mine.
Aside from that small issue, I definitely got choked up more than once, and couldn’t believe the devastation that happened in Rwanda. I had no idea that they were involved in a civil war in the 1990’s, and never learned about the genocide and terror caused by the war. An estimated half million to one million people were killed in the war, and this was less than 30 years ago. I read a little more about the civil war after I finished the book, which is always a good sign to me- if I seek more info when I’m finished with a novel, the author has made me curious and interested in the topic of their book, not just the content.
Overall, I would certainly recommend The Girl Who Smiles Beads. The hype is real, but so is the emotional impact. If you choose to pick this title up, have a box of tissues handy.
TL/DR: The Girl Who Smiled Beads is the memoir of a young Rwanda refugee who struggles with her identity and relays the life she’s lived, growing up in a war-torn country.
Read it? Yes, or give the audiobook a listen.
Recommend it? In specific cases in which a memoir about such a difficult subject is appropriate, then yes.
Buy it? I would read a borrowed copy or audiobook first, before purchasing.
If you liked this novel or review, check out these similar reads:
- The Affairs of the Falcóns by Melissa Rivero
- A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum
- How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway