Book review

Even without bullets flying now, life not easy in West African country

Updated: 2014-01-19T02:26:51Z

By CHRISTINE PIVOVAR

Special to The Star

In recent years, the contemporary African novel has established itself as a notable player on the English literature scene.

Last year saw the release of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah,” Taiye Selasi’s “Ghana Must Go” and NoViolet Bulawayo’s “We Need New Names.”

This year, the trend continues with “Radiance of Tomorrow,” the debut novel by Sierra Leone-born Ishmael Beah.

Beah, who lives in New York, chronicled his experience as a child soldier during Sierra Leone’s 1991-to-2002 civil war in his 2007 memoir, “A Long Way Gone.”

“Radiance” picks up in his native country as its people start to move on in the aftermath of the war, highlighting the struggles of day-to-day life after the international spotlight has turned elsewhere. Just because the guns are silent doesn’t mean that life is easy, Beah told Stephen Colbert in a recent interview.

The novel opens with the resettling of Imperi, a rural village left abandoned during the conflict, where the bones of loved ones still lay where they fell years ago. Former inhabitants start to trickle back, searching for long-lost relatives and friends. New villagers — those who have nowhere else to go or who are tired of wandering — arrive to fill the vacant houses, and slowly a new community begins to pull itself together.

Though set in the present day, “Radiance” owes much to that foundational text of modern African literature, Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” (1958). In Achebe’s novel, conflict comes with the incursion of colonialism and Christianity in 19th century Nigeria. In Beah’s, it’s international industry and political corruption that arrive to exploit Sierra Leone in its weakened state.

Once things have achieved a state of normalcy, a mining company arrives in Imperi, flooding the town with pollution, ill-mannered foreign workers and police officers in the pocket of the corporation. One by one, citizens of the village accept dangerous jobs at the mine, as the promise of wages and the reality of few alternatives outweigh the villagers’ personal objections.

For much of the novel, the community itself is just as much the protagonist as any of the individuals. But three-quarters of the way in, the perspective tightens to focus on former high school teacher and father of five Bockarie, who moves with his family to the capital city, Freetown, in hopes of finding more opportunities.

In his author’s note, Beah is very clear about his desire to incorporate the oral tradition he grew up with into his writing. He captures phrases as they would sound in his mother tongue of Mende; thus we get such poetic constructions as, “Evening was approaching and the sky was preparing to roll over and change its side.”

On the other hand, the dialogue between characters comes off as more of a translated, third-hand transcript than a people talking live on the page.

The narrative is very matter of fact about the suffering and challenges its characters face.

There is no need for flowery language about a family trying to adjust to society after each having hands amputated, or a boy trying to reclaim his humanity after the atrocities he was made to commit during the war.

Still, at times, the story can seem like an unrelenting series of unfortunate events. In places it hews a little too closely to the stereotypical contrast between the idyllic, rural past and the dystopian, industrialized present.

In the end, Beah achieves a dual quality with his novel. It feels like something that may very well have happened/be happening in real life, but also like something that exists only as long as the storyteller keeps speaking.

Gestures speak loudly, and emotions are flattened out and amplified, while at the same time you get such specific, memorable images as residents of a neighborhood turning on their generators in unison just in time to watch a Manchester United match.

Ultimately, it’s the storytelling tradition that offers our characters their only solace, and it’s that aspect that gives this novel of contemporary Africa its timeless feeling.

Christine Pivovar is a freelance writer in Kansas City.

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