SOHO SHALOM, my latest novel, revolves around the life of a feisty Jewish university graduate who works in a sex shop, Naomi Lieberman, and the Rwandan-born director of a refugee centre in Soho, John Paul Chambers. The novel opens with a hard-hitting introduction set in Kigali during the Rwandan genocide. This is counterbalanced – as the action moves forward twenty years to contemporary London – by the culture clashes of a Soho sex shop and life in an Orthodox Jewish family. These narratives, as well as the gradual unravelling of John Paul’s shocking past, interweave throughout the novel to play out a very modern, multicultural love story.
Kigali, Rwanda, April 1994
The boy couldn’t breathe. At first he thought it was a feverish dream. One of those dreams where you want to run but your legs have become lead, or you want to gasp for air but your lungs have turned liquid. And then he understood why he couldn’t breathe. Something was pressed against his mouth, preventing the passage of air. He tried to move the obstruction, but to do so he had to free his hands from other obstructions. Warm, slippery-soft obstructions that smelt peculiar. Salty.
It was an arm that was pressed against his mouth. His mother’s arm. And next to it, lots of other tangled bodies and parts of bodies and torn clothes and hair and sweat … and blood. So much blood, he wanted to retch.
It all came back to him. Better not to come back, but memory is a cruel automaton. So it came back to him, without mercy, just like them. And with the return of memory, an urgent desire to escape his bloodied, tangled hell, and breathe oxygen rather than blood.
He freed himself from his mother’s arm and several other still-warm limbs from school friends and relatives and neighbours who had been running and screaming and wailing in a helter-skelter of frenzied panic not so long ago. But now all was silence. All was death.
Except him. He wasn’t dreaming, and he wasn’t dead. He had to get out. He had to hold his breath, close his eyes, heave himself out of the pile of bodies and run for his life before they came back. Because they would come back. He knew that. They came back to check if there were any survivors, and dispose of them.
He screwed up his eyes, raised his legs, and gave an almighty push forwards, freeing himself from the mound of death.
He was the only survivor. He could see that now, as he crouched on the floor beside the pile of corpses. His mother’s body was at the top, next to where he himself had lain. The gingham dress that his father had bought for her last birthday was pushed up to her waist, revealing shreds of bloodied underwear. A stick jutted out from between her thighs. There was blood all the way down her legs, still fresh, so dark and thick, it looked like melted molasses. Instinctively he moved forwards to pull down her dress, but the stick between her legs made the fine material stand up in the middle like some grotesque, bestial symbol that his innocence refused to register. There would no longer be any innocence.
He looked away, and then saw his father’s body. And his sister’s, and his two brothers.
He stood alone on the floor, next to the corpses, amid the grand, hallowed space of the school hall where they had thought themselves safe. Here they were, all dead, and here he was, the only survivor. He felt nothing. Just the blood on his face and head. He had been cut. That’s when he must have lost consciousness, and they thought him dead.
And then he heard them. Again. The distant voices, gaining in volume; the laughter, the shouting, the bursts into patriotic Hutu songs, and the whistle.
It was the whistle that did it. The whistle meant for them get to work, and for him, death by machete. Unless he acted fast. No time for fear, despair, panic … he had to act now, play the most skilful role of his life, far better than any school production he had ever taken part in. He had to climb back onto the pile of bodies, wrap his mother’s arm round his face once again, close his eyes, play dead.
His eyes darted from the door to the corpses as he heard the killers storm the school building, their leader still blowing his whistle.