Book Note: Broken Memory
Elisabeth Combres has written a short novel, Broken Memory: A Novel of Rwanda (2009, Groundwood Books; first published in French as La Memoire Trouee) which you can read in a couple of hours. I commend it to anyone, including interested teenagers, who would like a better understanding of the lived experience of life after witnessing the murder of a parent. Emma, a Tutsi, at five survives the genocide and the death of her mother. Shes does so with the help of an old Hutu woman.
Despite the topic, the story is beautifully written and exudes a sad sweetness. You experience Emma’s fog-like existence, you can visualize the knobby hands of the grandmother as she prepares a meal, you can feel the hard bench she sits at, you strain with her as she tries to remember her mother’s face.
So she existed without really being there, not really alive and not dead, though she would sometimes feel like a corpse herself, buried in the mud at the foot of the garden.
What I like about the book is that Emma mimics the way that many trauma survivors function. She confronts partial memories, but wishing to see and wanting desperately not to see. She regains memories of her deceased family in bits and pieces, often recalled by sights and sounds from her current life. Trauma narrows Emma’s world so that she is noticing the color of a woman’s dress, the dent in a boy’s head (another survivor), the deft cuts of a knife on a potato, the sound of a voice that belonged to her mother’s killer.
The book also includes a few scenes from Emma’s work with a counselor-like figure. I think you will find the experience and movement in that portion very life-like. When you read the book, take note of how he helps her tell her story. And also, take note of how others give Emma choice in how and when she processes her traumatic memories.