For the last two years I have been writing, re-writing, changing the title, re-writing yet again, and at last finalising my latest novel, which was inspired by my trip to Rwanda in October 2016. In a nutshell, Once Upon a Thousand Hills is a very modern love story that blends a risky cocktail of sex, humour and trauma. One reader described it as: “Bridget Jones’ Diary meets A Thousand Splendid Sons”.
My aim was to create something that would tear down the barriers between race and religion, showing how the power of love can overcome even the greatest traumas of genocide. But at the same time I didn’t want it to be a turgid, preachy sort of book. I wanted it to be a ‘good read’, a page-turner, bringing both laughter and lumps to the reader’s throat. I wanted it to be accessible to a wide audience, not just an elite one. A hard call, when you mix humour and suffering. But maybe also the best way to sneak into the reader’s mind, subtly enlightening them? Hmm. Only time will tell if I have succeeded.
As my book will be going live on Amazon very soon, I thought I’d post a brief preview of the Prologue and a snippet of Chapter One. But first of all, here’s the blurb:
Naomi Lieberman is young, feisty, and desperately looking for meaning in life. Despite having a degree in forensic science, she works as a sales assistant at a sex shop in Soho, London. This is but one of the many secrets that she hides from her Orthodox Jewish family in Liverpool, not to mention her childhood sweetheart, Ephraim. The fact that her old school rival is doing so well for herself doesn’t help matters …
On her way home from work one afternoon, Naomi spots a poster advertising for volunteers at a local refugee centre. Believing this to be just what she needs to at last redeem herself, she applies for the job. But when she is interviewed by the enigmatic and aloof John Paul Chambers from Rwanda, whose dark past in the genocide is something he’d rather forget, she has no idea that her life is about to change forever.
Okay, so here it is, folks. The opening of Once Upon a Thousand Hills.
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. 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 childhood make-believe game 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.
Kigali, Rwanda, April 2014
naomi liebermann @NaomiLieberman … 2s
@PaulKagame I urgently need to contact John Paul Chambers. I know he’s somewhere in Rwanda. Please, Your Excellency, help me find him!
Soho, London, one year earlier
It all began in a sex shop.
At six o’clock in the evening of Friday, 22nd February, I was just about to leave Sugar Lace and head back to Finchley to join the Blumenbergs for Shabbat dinner. And then Mr Hossain walked into the shop.
He strode across the dimly lit room and slapped one of our Ready-Made Massage Kits onto the counter. It’s a brilliant deal, this kit; a boxed set that includes lubes, gels, a mini-vibrator thrown in for fun, and a special candle that turns into scented oil as it melts, so that it can be poured straight onto one’s skin ready for the massage – and all for the unbeatable price of £19.99. He certainly wouldn’t find a better deal anywhere else in Soho!
“How can I help you, sir?” I asked cheerily, but he averted his eyes. He often does that, as though wrestling with the shameful prospect of making optical contact with a sex shop worker.
He stood still for a good five, maybe six seconds. The wall clock above the serving counter ticked away. For want of something to do while waiting for him to enlighten me, I started flicking through the pages of the The Liverpool Jewish Chronicle that lay on the counter in front of me. Mum keeps sending me the damn thing, month after month. I haven’t got the heart to tell her that I’m simply not into all that Judaistic stuff anymore. Not since I swapped the home hearth of Liverpool for the bedazzling lights of London six and a half years ago. But there you are. There’s a soft heart for you. Always gets you in a pickle, prodding you to do dutiful things you don’t want to do, and not do naughty things you do want to do. But I do them anyway. The naughty things, I mean.