Recent Harvard grad Uzodinma Iweala’s new, and first, novel “Beasts of No Nation,” is nothing short of astonishing. Ripe with powerful imagery, colorful language, and effectively moving characters, it is the poignant tale of a young, African boy’s coming of age. However, it is no “Catcher in the Rye,” no “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” no “Great Expectations.” “Beasts of No Nation” is a unique and even unusual account of what it means to grow up.
Set in an unnamed West African country, the novel traces a young boy’s journey as part of a unit of guerrilla fighters in the midst of a bloody civil war. When his father is killed and his mother and sister kidnapped, the boy, named Agu, is forced to join a violent group of rag-tag soldiers, led by a volatile leader, called only Commandant. Commandant immediately likes Agu and protects the boy from the rough ways of the hardened soldiers around him. As the story progresses Agu is immersed into the world of guns and bloodshed and fear. He finds himself stabbing, and shooting, and being shot at. He finds himself running, and hiding. He finds himself sleeping in trenches filled with water, in pits full of infested dead bodies, in treacherous heat, and on an empty stomach. And Agu finds himself asking some of the most difficult moral questions with which mankind is faced.
He wonders if he is damned since he has killed innocent women and children. He wonders if God will ever forgive him for the violent actions he is forced to perform. He fears he is becoming a monster, a beast; that he will no longer be able to live a normal life, a life as simply a boy. It becomes clear that he will not. He ponders whether killing is ever right, whether revenge is ever worth seeking, and whether any cause is worth dying for. And he desires to know whether there is really any light in this dark world.
This book is a powerfully emotional story.
Iweala presents all this in an original and creative style. Much like William Faulkner did, Iweala writes in the vernacular with which his characters speak. Agu narrates the tale with an obvious accent, leaving various words out, especially articles, and repeating others as someone might whose first language is not English and who is trying to emphasis something. For many readers this might be a deterrent to reading the book, but that would a mistake. This style allows Iweala to narrow in on the internal emotion and pain Agu is feeling; by it readers are drawn deep into the boy’s shattered soul: his disconnection with his former life and his disturbed youthfulness . It also allows Iweala to more effectively change the pace and emphasis of the narrative. Should the style make for a difficult read in the books first few pages, as it did for me, fight through it, for I can assure you, that will change. You will be arrested by it by the second chapter.
Iweala has a great talent for putting the reader in the midst of the story’s setting. He pays astonishing attention to detail, without boring the reader, and he knows how to appeal to all of the readers senses. It is exceedingly clear what Agu is feeling and seeing and hearing and tasting, and the effect of those sensory experiences are equally as clear.
Readers, keep your eye on the young, talented Iweala. He is an important voice for our generation with a unique moral vision; a resonant and applicable voice for our modern world, one which faces the challenges our world faces head on and which confronts their effects on us. And he dares his readers to engage them alongside him. Remember his name- he will be around for quite some time.
“Beasts Of No Nation” is a novel which effected me like few recent novels have, and it can you too. It is the winner of The L.A. Times Art Seidenbaum Award for first fiction, the Sue Kaufman prize for first fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. It was also named a best book of the year by Time Magazine, People Magazine, Slate Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and New York Magazine. It gets a 9 out of 12 on my own scale.
“Beasts of No Nation” is published by Harper Perennial in a gorgeous new edition. Run to your nearest book store and demand they sell you a copy- immediately.
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