Ishmael Beah’s disturbing memoir, A Long Way Home (2007), recorded his life as a child-soldier in Sierre Leone’s bloody war, one of Africa’s most brutal. The book became a best-seller after it was published in the United States—surprisingly because in most instances Americans cannot stomach such topics. Half a dozen years later, Beah has published a novel, set in an African village called Imperi during what can only be called a period of reconstruction. The title, Radiance of Tomorrow, seemingly implies a time of hope, forgiveness, and stability, though much of what happens in Imperi suggests something quite the opposite.
Imperi was so devastated during the war that nothing remained. Nada. One of the few survivors, recalls the event (“Operation No Living Thing”) that destroyed the village: “He was at the mosque and the gunmen came inside and started shooting everyone. He fell and bodies piled on top of him. The soldiers fired some more at the bodies to make sure everyone was properly dead. He held his breath. He didn’t know how he lived through it. After they left, he waited, hearing the sounds of men, boys, girls, and women crying in pain as they were tortured and then killed outside. He knew most of the voices, and at some point his ears cut him off of their own accord. He stayed under the bodies until late at night when the operation had finished and there was no sound of any living thing, not even the cry of a chick. He pulled himself out and saw the bullet-ridden bodies, some hacked. He ran out of town covered in the blood and excrement of those killed on top of him. He could not feel or smell anything for days. He just ran and ran until his nose reminded him what he was covered in. It was then that he searched for a river and washed himself clean.”
Seven years after the eventual truce, the few remaining villagers (mostly those who were away from their village on the day of the massacre) trickle home to Imperi. First, a couple of the elders, followed by a few children, Then, finally one of the school teachers, Bockarie, and others who can begin the period of rebuilding. Some of the survivors are maimed, missing a hand or a foot—typical forms of dismemberment during the war, usually to save ammunition. The first indication that reconstruction is possible is the remarkable agility of many of these maimed survivors, who have learned how to cope with missing limbs. Even the taboo of shaking hands with the left hand has been altered by the new reality.
The initial indications of respect for one another and helping others soon give way to more serious changes, presumably brought about by the horrible war. The principal of the school begins to cheat his teachers (including Bockarie) out of part of their pay. Worse, as two or three years pass, the villagers learn that unseen forces in the government have signed away land rights in Imperi, given them to a Western mining company. Villagers lose their ancestral lands; the mining company has little respect for human life. Workers are killed or maimed by accidents. It doesn’t take much to realize that a new kind of warfare has reached Imperi, as the mine totally disrupts the tenuous fabric of the community. One villager asks, “How do you pack up to leave your town for mining? It was easier to run during the war—you knew that no matter what, if you stayed alive, you would be able to return home and stand on your land. Now the land would be flooded; it would disappear.” In short, the war brought much more than physical harm to the people: the old communal value system (sharing, helping others) has been torn apart. You can go home again, perhaps, but home will never be what it was.
You could say that Bockarie finally gives up, but Beah does not want us to draw that conclusion. He packs up his family and takes them to Freetown, the country’s capital, once more beginning over again. But if village life has been altered by the recent war, self-interest has become the name of the game for people who live in the city. Freetown is teeming with displaced people; the city’s pace is so fast that it will leave aside those who cannot quickly adjust to amoral activities.
And the reality of the city (with its own horrors) makes it difficult to see a glimmer of hope in the future for Beah’s survivors. Perhaps that is the author’s intent: tomorrow. Tomorrow is what sustains the downcast, the afflicted, since the reality of the day is brutal, impersonal, crushing. For me, the author’s optimism did not mesh with the reality of his characters’ lives. Throughout much of Radiance of Tomorrow, I thought there was a novel trying to discover its way—a story looming from one context to another. So much talent wasted here.
Ishmael Beah: Radiance of Tomorrow
Sarah Crichton Books/FSG, 256 pp., $25
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.