#Nonfiction Book Review: The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya & Elizabeth Weil

The Girl who Smiled Beads

*Thanks for the free book, Crown Publishing; it’s my pleasure to be a part of your monthly book send programme and provide honest reviews for the titles chosen*

A story of war and what comes after.


“The plot provided by the universe was filled with starvation, war and rape. I would not–could not–live in that tale.”

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbors 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, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years migrating 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; there, in Chicago, their lives diverged. Though their bond remained unbreakable, Claire, who had for so long protected and provided for Clemantine, was a single mother struggling to make ends meet, while Clemantine was taken in by a family who raised her as their own. She seemed to live the American dream: attending private school, taking up cheerleading, and, 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 is a very good book; it never once felt dramatised or sensationalised – Wamariya recounts her childhood and early adulthood in a very honest way.

This book has a non-linear timeline, jumping back and forth between Wamariya’s life beginning in Rwanda and her journey through Africa and her life as a refugee in the United States. This provided a constant contrast between the harrowing times escaping war and her privileged life in America. And this was achieved without needing to be detailed but through the format of the book, which I thought was very effective.

“How could one place have such excess while in another, just a plane ride away, people starved?”

I say “privileged life in America” but that’s not to imply that Wamariya’s life became easy; yes, she may have left the conflict behind, but her memories travelled with her. I will not recount Wamariya’s experience, but know that this is a painfully honest account. To read first-hand her experience of fleeing the Rwandan massacre and her journey to healing is eye-opening and emotional. What really stood out for me, and why I keep mentioning the honestness of this account, is that Wamariya lays bare to us her inner thoughts, her exploration of self, of losing who she was and trying to find herself again in every new country she enters.

One thing this book highlighted for me was the state of refugee camps, in terms of their horrendous conditions. Now, this may be naive of me, but I did not expect the conditions to be so dire; aid was offered by charities, but it seemed barely any aid was being delivered. It’s reading things like this in a book that open my eyes to things I was blind to before.

“All those countries that ended WWII by saying never again turned their backs.”

A further thing this book highlighted for me, and shows the power of Wamariya’s account, is when she speaks about the word genocide. I have always thought of it to be a powerful word, one indicating true horror – the worst man-made atrocity. Wamariya very clearly explained why this word is not enough, how this generalised conflict all over the world, when no two conflicts are the same, and no two people experience the same conflict in the same way. This is the importance of this book [and books like this] you are able to learn the individual experience and even that in itself is a start to recognising the individual – the individual pain, the individual loss, the individual healing.

“You cannot bear witness with a single word.”

I highly recommend this book – a memoir of how the Rwandan massacre changed the life of six-year-old girl forever – I thank Wamariya for sharing her account with us.

This book is available to buy from: Amazon US / Amazon UK / Book Depository

*publication date: April 24th 2018

15 thoughts on “#Nonfiction Book Review: The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya & Elizabeth Weil

    1. I set myself a goal of at least one non fiction book a month, I read one in January and then nothing until now so I’m just getting myself back on track – I wouldn’t normally read two harrowing nonfic books back to back, but I definitely want to make them a steady part of my reading 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. What an incredible review!! I’ve heard so much about this one. It sounds so wise and powerful – like that line about bearing witness with a single word. Really drives home the importance of understanding something about this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow Janel, this sounds powerful and you’ve really sold this to me! 😳 Sorry I can’t share your brilliant review but I’m sure you’re aware of the little jailbird here! 🙄☹️😂

    Liked by 1 person

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