August 29, 2011

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala

Uzodinma Iweala’s debut novel is both horrifying and fascinating. Beasts of No Nation tells the story of Agu, a young boy in an unnamed West African nation who is forced to fight in the war that is raging through his region. After the death of his father, Agu is left on his own and is soon found by the cruel and manipulative Commandant.  To avoid being killed, Agu joins up with the motley army of rebels. As Agu faces constant violence and abuse, he finds a friend in one of his fellow soldiers, a mute boy named Strika. Though he is too young to really process the horrors he both experiences and is urged to perpetrate, Agu worries constantly about whether killing is morally wrong or if it is a necessary part of being a soldier.

The narration is from Agu’s point of view and is skillfully rendered in the voice and tone of a child, filled with grammatical idiosyncrasies and digressions. At first the language is difficult to get used to, and even the simple description of a ransacked room becomes unwieldy: “Breaking glass is everywhere like someone is coming here before. All of the chair is breaking, but there is still picture on the wall, and there are plastic flower lying on table” (47). Yet there is a curious symmetry to Agu’s way of telling his story. His verbs and nouns are as confused as his emotional state, and there are small moments in the novel in which the prose is absolutely beautiful.

We are at the camp and I am watching how the sun is just dropping behind the hill like it is not wanting to be seeing us anymore. All the color is leaking out of it and looking like flame from hell all over, eating up the top of the tree, making all the leaf bright, bright. Suddenly it is night. The earth is changing from bright orange to black and I am seeing steam rising up from some darkness, just chasing the sun away (74).

Beasts of No Nation is a book that will make you uncomfortable. It will make you ache and cringe and want to cry. The characters of the child soldiers do brutal, reprehensible things, but their actions are difficult to pin with blame, for they are just children with no home and no help. Iweala’s novel is filled with moments of messy, raw emotion and gives a unique voice to a young protagonist.  Though I'm glad to have read Beasts of No Nation and I feel it tells an important story, I cannot say that it was an enjoyable experience. Recommended, but not for those with a weak stomach.

Beasts of No Nation © Uzodinma Iweala and Harper Perennial, 2005.

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