Gil Courtemanche

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali

  • This summary of A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche.

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is a novel by Quebecois author Gil Courtemanche, first published in French in 2000, followed by an English translation by Vintage in 2003. Set during the height of the Rwandan genocide, it charts the tragic love story of documentary filmmaker Bernard Valcourt and a Hutu waitress named Gentille. As their love for one another grows, so too does the ethnic cleansing that sweeps through Rwanda, putting not only their love but Gentille’s very life in grave danger.

The novel opens in 1994, at the pool of the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali. It fills with the usual motley group of visitors, including aid workers from the West, middle-class Rwandans, expatriates from an array of countries, and hookers. Among this diverse collection of humanity is Bernard, invited from his native Canada to Rwanda to establish a new television station there. Bernard sees this as an opportunity to not only advance his career but to draw some much-needed attention to the AIDS crisis in Africa. AIDS is rampant in Rwanda at the time, though the country’s government denies it is an issue, so foreign aid is slow in coming—when it comes at all.

In the meantime, Bernard spends his days by the pool, his eyes rarely leaving a beautiful Hutu waitress who works at the hotel. He also writes in his journal, sharing cynical thoughts that are only softened by the presence of the waitress and his burgeoning affection for her country.

Her name is Gentille, and she is a native Hutu, but she looks like a Tutsi, which is the other major ethnic group of Rwanda. Trouble has long brewed between the Hutus and the Tutsis, and the Hutu political elite is gaining the power they need to carry out one of the greatest mass atrocities of the twentieth century. Gentille looks like a Tutsi because her great-grandfather feared for the safety of his offspring in a world were Hutus were relegated to second-class status. He forced his children to marry their Tutsi neighbors. So, while in the eyes of the law she is Hutu, Gentille’s mixed Tutsi-Hutu ancestry gives her the looks of a native Tutsi.

Bernard could care less. He finds her breathtaking, as do most men who encounter her. But he never makes her uncomfortable, never ogles her or forces himself on her, and this sets him apart from the rest of the men who cross her path. As a result, Gentille finds herself falling for Bernard just as much as he is falling for her. Complicating things even more is the fact that Bernard is falling in love with Rwanda, despite the trouble looming on the horizon.

That trouble is a civil war. The Hutus in power spread anti-Tutsi propaganda, and because Gentille looks so much like a Tutsi, her life becomes increasingly perilous, her rights and dignity slowly stripped away.

Soon, death is a part of the couple’s everyday life. Bernard, in his efforts to document the nation’s AIDS epidemic, films the AIDS-related death of his friend Méthode, who goes out with the help of whiskey, morphine, and a prostitute. “Even rich people in the United States don’t have beautiful deaths like this,” he says. But the deaths keep coming, and none of them are beautiful. Hutu militia slashes one of Valcourt’s friends, Cyprien, to death with machetes after forcing Cyprien to have sex with his wife in front of them. Roads are soon blocked all around the country because the bodies building up in ditches are impossible to count or conceal.

Still, the love between Bernard and Gentille blossoms as the nation falls apart. Under the fig tree by the hotel pool, he reads her poems by Paul Éluard, and they have sex for the first time. Not long after, Bernard proposes, and he and Gentille marry. Now that Gentille is his wife, he can take her back to Canada to escape the carnage that has enveloped Rwanda. But Bernard’s love for Gentille’s homeland compels him to stay. He doesn’t want to give up on Rwanda—a decision that will have devastating consequences for both him and Gentille.

With Gentille’s life in more danger with every passing day, Bernard eventually realizes that they must leave, whether he wants to or not. He plans for them to escape to Nairobi, but Hutu forces kidnap Gentille, and she effectively disappears. Bernard immediately sets off to find her, yet he knows the reality of the situation. Gentille becomes another number in the rapidly mounting list of casualties in the Rwandan genocide. Lost, devastated, and alone, Bernard tries to document how Gentille spent her final days. It is a largely fruitless quest, but he does discover one thing: a short passage of writing she scrawled in an old notebook. Bernard then decides to remain in Rwanda and adopts an orphaned Hutu girl.