RAV­AGED by war

Long Way Gone au­thor Ish­mael Beah pens evoca­tive novel set in post-con­flict Sierra Leone

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

CLEARLY min­ing its au­thor’s shat­ter­ing per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences with war and its af­ter­math, African writer Ish­mael Beah’s first novel is haunt­ing and evoca­tive. Re­silience is etched in its pages, though the thread of hope is al­ways ten­u­ous. Born in Sierra Leone in 1980 and now liv­ing in the U.S., Beah re­ceived in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion in 2007 for his gritty mem­oir of his life as a child sol­dier, A Long Way Gone. His fol­lowup, Ra­di­ance of Tomorrow, is set in post­war Sierra Leone, some­where around 2002. It opens with the re­turn of two el­ders to the burned and over­grown vil­lage ofo Im­peri. The decade-long civil war has fi­nally ended. Bones of mas­sa­cred fam­i­lies lit­ter the vil­lage paths and skele­tons hang in the door­waysd of farm­houses. The el­ders spend weeks clean­ing up the grisly rem­nants of the war. Even­tu­ally, peo­ple from hiding places deep in the for­est be­gin to ar­rive back “home.” Or­phans, am­putees and for­mer child sol­diers come to Im­peri, the place they have heard about in the long-ago sto­ries of their par­ents and grand­par­ents.g

Sto­ries, writes Beah, are the “most po­tent way of see­ing any­thing we can en­counter in our lives.” Sto­ry­telling helps to “deal with liv­ing.” Beah, in fact, vis­ited Winnipeg in 2008 on the in­vi­ta­tion of a high school sto­ry­telling club. And so Beah draws us into the sto­ries and sto­ry­tellers of Im­peri. The char­ac­ters in his novel have ex­pe­ri­enced all the hall­marks of war: am­pu­ta­tion, maim­ing, rape. “Colonel” is a silent 18-year-old who cre­ates a fam­ily out of a group of for­mer child sol­diers. He is a pow­er­ful pres­ence in the vil­lage. Sira and his two young chil­dren are am­putees, vic­tims of sol­diers who ter­ror­ized and sub­ju­gated cit­i­zens by cut­ting off their hands. Though they are deeply trau­ma­tized, Sira is a jovial man who seeks to teach his chil­dren how to find joy in life. Bockarie and Ben­jamin are teach­ers with young fam­i­lies. They are de­ter­mined to bring ed­u­ca­tion to their vil­lage, sure that ed­u­ca­tion is the key to liv­ing well in the peace­ful fu­ture of Sierra Leone. The af­ter­math of war in Im­peri is not peace. Ge­ol­o­gists dis­cover valu­able min­er­als, in­clud­ing ru­tile. That dis­cov­ery changes ev­ery­thing. A new form of war be­gins. This time, the at­tacker is greed. The land is maimed and raped with no re­gard for the hu­man cost. Read­ers are re­minded of the eco­log­i­cal and hu­man degra­da­tion so pow­er­fully de­picted in the 2006 movie Blood Di­a­mond, also set in Sierra Leone. Beah’s de­scrip­tions are also rem­i­nis­cent of the oil-drenched en­vi­ron­men­tal hell in Nige­ria, the set­ting of 419, Cal­gar­ian Will Fer­gu­son’s Giller Prize-win­ning novel. Within a few years of their re­turn, the el­ders watch their vil­lage be­come stained again, this time with tragedy and cor­rup­tion. Still, they con­tinue to of­fer sto­ries of wis­dom and hope. Beah’s writ­ing is pow­er­ful. His use of lan­guage echoes the poetry of his mother tongue. He fre­quently pro­vides lit­eral trans­la­tions of the metaphor-rich lan­guage. A ball, for ex­am­ple is a “nest of air.” Dawn is the hour when “night hands over the trou­bles of the liv­ing to the day,” and full day­light comes “when the sun fin­ishes its ne­go­ti­a­tions with the clouds and takes over the sky.” Th­ese de­scrip­tions pro­vide a lovely sense of the peo­ple and their land. A first novel can­not be with­out flaws. Beah’s fore­shad­ow­ing is awk­ward and his at­tempts at metaphor are odd. For ex­am­ple, when Bockarie finds a new job that be­comes re­pul­sive, the au­thor con­cludes, “in a city where the hand of op­por­tu­nity did not come by eas­ily, he would need to care­fully and cau­tiously jump from one ca­noe to another be­fore sound­ing the door­bell of his val­ues.” Th­ese flaws are mi­nor, though. Ra­di­ance of Tomorrow is a po­tent and poignant story that will stay with read­ers long af­ter the last page is turned. Win­nipeg­ger Adelia Neufeld Wiens and her hus­band spent sev­eral

years work­ing at an in­ter­na­tional school in Nairobi, Kenya.


Beah’s writ­ing is pow­er­ful and his use of lan­guage echoes the poetry of his mother tongue.

Ra­di­ance of Tomorrow

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