In Wendy Skorupski’s first novel Once Upon a Thousand Hills, she writes about interracial relationships, the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, and the lengths to which star-crossed lovers will go to be together.
The work of fiction follows the lives of Naomi Lieberman and her boss-turned-boyfriend John Paul Chambers.
It starts with flashbacks to 1994 through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy, whom we later find out is young Chambers hiding inside a pile of bodies from the genocide perpetrators, playing dead next to his dead family and close friends to save his life.
Skorupski sets out the tragedy in the prologue, which draws you into the story and sets the tone for the rest of the novel. And then she takes you back in time to the genesis of the relationship, from where the story unravels chronologically.
In the spring of 2013, Lieberman is desperately looking for meaning in her life. Despite having a Master’s degree in forensic science, she works as a sales assistant at a sex shop in Soho, London.
This is one of the many guilty secrets that she hides from her Orthodox Jewish family in Liverpool, and her childhood sweetheart and fiancé Ephraim.
When she sees an advert for a job at a refugee centre, she is convinced that it is just what she needs to fill the missing part in her life. This is further reinforced by the fact that her old school rival is doing well for herself, even winning Volunteer of the Year awards.
She encounters an arrogant and aloof man when she calls to request for an interview, who turns out to be Chambers.
When he interviews the flighty and irritating applicant, neither of them realises that their lives are about to change. They try to hide their feelings for each other and rub each other the wrong way.
Their relationship eventually takes off and Lieberman and Chambers fall into a whirlwind romance despite obstacles placed in theier way by outside forces and their disparate personalities.
They are a mixed race couple, Lieberman is a feisty Jewish anthropologist who is not afraid to say what’s on her mind and Chambers is a grief-stricken Rwandan adoptee from an English family, who is rather reticent and is still trying to come to terms with the loss of his family 20 years earlier.
The expansive narrative has a lot of melodramatic twists and turns that lead to a breakup, which triggers Chambers to go back to Rwanda.
Lieberman follows, and even tweets the president to enquire about Chambers’s whereabouts. That said, there is one aspect of the book that did not quite fit the narrative. It is not clear why Chambers’ father was killed.
Once Upon a Thousand Hills is set in three locations—London (1995-2013), Kigali (2014), and Gisenyi (2014).
Skorupski showcases her skill and versatility, writing in first person from the perspectives of the man and woman.
She uses vivid descriptions and weaves wit and jokes into the story, making it a humorous read despite the gravity of its subject.
The build-up of the story is commendable and her writing is rather risqué.
The book was inspired by a trip Skorupski and her family made to Rwanda in October 2016, in part because her daughter was undertaking an International Baccalaureate history study of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
She tweeted President Paul Kagame at the time, and when he replied, word soon got out and triggered a plethora of international articles and interviews, making her a celebrity during her time in Rwanda.
Once Upon a Thousand Hills is also the story of Rwanda rising like a phoenix from the ashes.
When Lieberman goes looking for Chambers, the story of the new democratic Rwanda unfolds and we experience the social, economic and political changes taking place in the country.
The book also lets us in on their experiences with extended families, friends, communities and countries.
A gripping narration that covers themes of sexuality, culture, family, trust, love, trauma, mental health, career, religion, betrayal and death.