Review published on August 3, 2017.
Theo was born in Rwanda, one of three children of a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother. When the genocide began, his family tried to escape the violence but failed; his final memory of his father was of him committing a violent act. He has no memory of what happened to the rest of his family, only a memory of being on his own and trying to hide from all the sights and sounds of violence. He was spotted in a refugee camp by an Irish aid-worker who took him to Ireland to be fostered by her sister and brother-in-law. He struggles to learn English but, with a deeply felt love of words and language, he masters it and then goes on to learn to speak Irish. He comes to enjoy the fact that his strong Irish accent confuses all those who ask him “where are you from?” He loves his foster parents and does manage to make a new life for himself; however, the traumatic events he has experienced continue to haunt and unsettle him and eventually he finds himself sucked into the murky world of drugs and criminal gangs in Dublin. Aged twenty-two and unable to get any other work, he takes a job in a restaurant where he meets co-worker, Deidre, a forty-year-old woman with three children and a violent husband. An unlikely friendship with her soon develops and offers him hope that he will, eventually, be able to find a way to resolve the mess his life has become.
One major theme in this story is an exploration of memory: its reliability, its unreliability and its shifting shape. Some of the reflections which remain with me focus on whether memories remain true when seen through a different prism; how can you remember what you cannot name or find the words for, and whether the very act of remembering changes memory. This one theme would make this an ideal choice for reading groups to discuss but there are so many more in this brilliant novel – love, loss, grief, forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, survival against the odds, violence, racism, bigotry, friendship – and there are more. One of the impressive things about the story is the way in which the author created such a coherent whole from this wide range of themes, subtly making them the influences which shaped her characters’ lives and experiences.
Although the friendship between Theo and Deidre was, on the face of it, an unlikely one, it soon became clear that they were both running away from something. They each needed to discover that running away does not allow you to escape what is within you, what you are trying to avoid; instead you need to find the strength to face your own demons and then find a way to move forward. I also enjoyed the fact that although Ireland and Rwanda may appear to be very different countries, each has a history of internecine violence, and each is now engaged in the process of reconciliation, making this another experience they shared. I found her exploration of the plight of Theo as a newly arrived refugee in Ireland, without the language to describe what had happened to him, to be very moving and thought-provoking.
It is hard to know how to do justice to this beautifully paced and nuanced book but it is one of the most moving novels I have ever read. The author has created characters, even the more minor ones, who are three-dimensional, often flawed and always entirely credible. Her use of language is searing, powerful and yet so delicately poetic; I loved the way in which she used Theo’s fascination with language to explore the love, power and meaning of words; to map his discovery of the fact that words are keys to understanding. There were so many times during my reading that I had to stop and reflect on what I had just read, and then go back and re-read it to appreciate the power and beauty of the narrative.
This is an intensely moving and, at times, heart-breaking story which will haunt my memories for a long time. There were many times when it moved me to tears and yet, because it also had, even in its darkest moments, a powerful thread of survival and optimism running through it, I was able to believe in a better, more optimistic world for the characters.
Last year I read Clár’s debut novel, Fractured, and had wondered whether her next one could possibly be as good – I was not disappointed; in fact, I think that it is maybe even better. I just hope that it will attract the widespread recognition that it deserves, and that it will be considered for literary awards.
Linda Hepworth 5/5
Rain Falls on Everyone by Clar Ni Chonghaile
Legend Press 9781785079016 pbk Jul 2017
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