Thursday, 26 April 2018

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya with Elizabeth Weil
Published in the UK by Hutchinson today, the 26th April 2018.

One of my ReadingWomen selections

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where to buy this book:

The Book Depository : from £12.24 (PB)
Wordery : from £12.57 (PB)
Waterstones : from £14.99 (HB)
Amazon : from £13.54 (HB)
Prices and availability may have changed since this post was written

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbours began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Clare, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries, searching for safety—perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.

When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted refugee status in the United States, where she embarked on another journey, ultimately graduating from Yale. Yet the years of being treated as less than human, of going hungry and seeing death, could not be erased. She felt at the same time six years old and one hundred years old.

In The Girl Who Smiled Beads, Clemantine provokes us to look beyond the label of ‘victim’ and recognize the power of the imagination to transcend even the most profound injuries and aftershocks. Devastating yet beautiful, and bracingly original, it is a powerful testament to her commitment to constructing a life on her own terms.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads was an unusual memoir for me to appreciate because much of the horrific genocide that forced Wamariya's exile happens off the page. Normally this would irritate me no end, but in this case it is because Wamariya's extreme youth meant she had a very limited understanding of what was happening around her. Instead of recounting violence and the details of this conflict, we see the Rwandan war as she saw it - in colours and sounds, through food or hunger - and this I often found emotionally more difficult to read. I was forced to keep remembering that this is the story of a young child.

Wamariya intersperses her memories of her years spent rootless except for her sister, with thoughtful discussions of what it means to be a refugee. Many of the issues she highlights are not often discussed elsewhere and I found myself rethinking some of my own beliefs about the 'best' and most effective ways to offer help.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a relatively fast read although one where I found it useful to re-read certain sections and discussions in order to really understand the points Wamariya makes. This book doesn't have the gruesome scenes that I found so distressing in The Running Man so I thought it more likely to appeal to a wider audience. It is still a shocking reminder of a terrible war and a strong warning of how the aftermath of colonialism still resounds across recently independent nations.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Clemantine Wamariya / Biography and memoir / Books from Rwanda


  1. This book sounds so good and what an important topic. Great review and thanks for sharing.

  2. I've always wanted to read this but I didn't have a good grasp of how disturbing it might be. I still want to read it, though.

    1. It does deal with a difficult subject, but sensitively and with a thoughtful approach

  3. Huh, that sounds like it would make for a different reading experience, to skip over the gruesomeness and violence and focus on the types of things other books don't. Seems like a well-written and powerful book, glad you enjoyed it.

    1. Wamariya focuses on her life after the war so, while details of the refugee camps are upsetting to read, it's her determination to overcome that start in life which I found most memorable.

  4. I would enjoy this and it sounds like it is beautifully written.

  5. I'm glad you loved this one, I can't wait to read it!

    Tori @ In Tori Lex

    1. I think you'll like it too. Such an amazing lifestory, and I appreciated how Wamariya delves into the issues she faced as a refugee after the war. So much I hadn't previously considered.