Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron

Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron: Book Review

Overall Score
100 %

Masterful, natural storytelling revealing no weaknesses and profiting the reader careful engagement with visceral human themes. Must read.

Story 100%
Writing Quality 100%
Impact 100%

Running the Rift Description

Running the Rift, winner of the 2010 Bellwether Prize for Fiction, follows the progress of Jean Patrick Nkuba from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life. A naturally gifted athlete, he sprints over the thousand hills of Rwanda and dreams of becoming his country’s first Olympic medal winner in track. But Jean Patrick is a Tutsi in a world that has become increasingly restrictive and violent for his people. As tensions mount between the Hutu and Tutsi, he holds fast to his dream that running might deliver him, and his people, from the brutality around them.

Running the Rift Reaction

I initially felt disappointment upon learning Jean Patrick Nkuba and his story sprung forth from the realms of fantasy. The imagined may not actually be possible in reality, creating distrust in a reader constantly looking for clues to escaping the dark realities of the human condition. Running the Rift concludes with an essay by the author, Naomi Benaron probing, into “the nature of fiction itself and into its ability to engage an event so vast and unspeakable as genocide.”  However convincing and commendable, the essay is rendered near superfluous by the preceding story itself. If only the story was more fiction and less reality…

Benaron immerses the reader in layers of organic prose, bringing the culture, landscapes and people of Rwanda to life. One can smell the foods, hear thunder rolling over green hills and feel mud sucking at the ankles along snaking footpaths. A lolling rhythm accompanies this introduction to Rwanda, and the characters seem quite believable. Yet, tragedy must inevitably come – we know the infamy of Rwanda.

Tragedy’s injection is strangely gentle. Many harsh moments exist in the book. They arrive as strange ships from the fog, suddenly arriving but vaguely expected – always coming or going on the peripheral currents. Dissonant aptly describes my impression of Benaron’s Rwandan tragedies. The real events shattered the earth, their arrival: not unexpected; their reality: unbelievable. Genocide is entirely other from how daily life should be. Rather than focusing on gruesome details, Running the Rift shows how ordinary life and madness cross paths. Sense with nonsense. Purpose with the arbitrary. How clear lines become blurred and civilization becomes civilized.

Benaron’s approach allows the reader to realize, this could happen anywhere. An us and them mentality is a luxury not afforded.

Genocide and devastation are not the only themes in Running the Rift. Love, relationships, ambition and sport all have equal focus.

Sport as Stability

By juxtaposing sport and incomprehensible tragedy (genocide), Benaron helps draw back the curtain on one elusive answer to a question: what value does sport have? The reality of sport is this: it is recreation, often entertainment and superflous to universal human needs (food, shelter, clothing) – so what real value does it have? Many good answers exist, but the answer revealed in the story of Jean Patrick struck me in this way: sport makes sense.

Sport is tangible. It is here, it is now. Consistent input produces consistent output. Sport is one of the few things we can control, a small refuge from the insanity of life with its politics, wars and uncertainties. It may be temporal and only, as the Apostle Paul said, “of some value”, but it has value. This offers one reason many of us derive pleasure from activities which often involve degrees of self-inflicted suffering (running a trail marathon in sleet comes to mind…).

Worth noting: Benaron’s focus seems more concerned (rightfully) with examining tragedy and social justice than probing the value of sport itself. When hell on earth breaks lose, her main characters are concerned with relationships and people, with God and meaning, not sport – a point worth noting in an age of athletics idolatry.


Running the Rift touches upon much more themes than the aforementioned. Plus, there’s the story itself, RYK isn’t a big fan of spoilers – you’ll have to read it for yourself!

This book is for those:

  • who contemplate sport in the context of life, grab this book
  • wanting to better understand what happened in Rwanda
  • interested in the value of family, relationships and love

Running the Rift Book Details

  • Paperback: 400 Pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; 1 edition (October 16, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 1616201940
  • ISBN-13: 978-1616201944

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About The Author

Brian Erickson
The only noteworthy facts about RYK's founder, Brian, are his height (6'7"), and his fortunate status as a cancer survivor. Otherwise, he is an average guy who works hard, enjoys adventures (trail running, backpacking, biking, hoops), and makes his living as a graphic and web designer. Brian is heading towards his 10 year wedding anniversary with his high school sweetheart. Connect with Brian on Instagram, Twitter, or Google+
  • Naomi Benaron

    Thank you so much for your beautiful and insightful review. It means a lot to know how much you took from the book.

    Keep running!

    • Naomi: Thank you for taking the time to leave a note, you made my week! Your talent is highly appreciated…