Fiction

Former teen soldier’s novel of rebuilding after the ravages of war is moving and honest

 
 
RADIANCE OF TOMORROW. Ishmael Beah. Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux. 242 pages. $25.
RADIANCE OF TOMORROW. Ishmael Beah. Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux. 242 pages. $25.

Meet the author

Who: Ishmael Beah

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables.

Info: 305-442-4408 or www.booksandbooks.com


Who doesn’t feel humbled by the hopefulness of those who have suffered most? The unbowed spirit of Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel or young Malala Yousafzai rebukes our lazy cynicism and reminds us that there’s nothing effete about expecting better days ahead.

Six years ago, the world heard from another resilient witness to humanity’s atrocities. Ishmael Beah was a teenager when civil war engulfed his home in Sierra Leone and rebels forced him to become a killer. His best-selling memoir, A Long Way Gone, did much to raise public awareness of the horrific abuse of child soldiers in Africa. Since then, Beah has become a UNICEF advocate for children affected by war, and his indelible memoir has become part of the curriculum in many schools.

Now he has published a muted, emotionally nimble story of return and rebuilding. As a novel, Radiance of Tomorrow won’t have to suffer the interrogation that Rupert Murdoch’s Australian reporters unleashed to prove that the traumatic memories in A Long Way Gone contained factual and chronological errors. Beah’s characters in these pages are fictional: survivors — whole and maimed, victims and perpetrators — who somehow emerged alive from the carnage that began sweeping Sierra Leone in the early 1990s. Their experiences, rendered in Beah’s evocative, campfire voice, present a community struggling to relearn the motions of ordinary life after a nightmare that “required parting with all familiar ways.”

The scene opens on a burned-out village called Imperi. Old Mama Kadie walks out of the forest, looking for the house she fled years ago. “There were bones, human bones, everywhere,” Beah writes, “and all she could tell was which had been a child or an adult.” Determined never to flee again, Mama Kadie finds another elder in the village, and together they collect and wash the mingled femurs, skulls and ribs of their relatives and neighbors. As they work, their thoughts drift back to those unspeakable days of “Operation No Living Thing,” when gunmen arrived and began torturing and killing everyone.

But this is not the story of that carnage, nor is it a story of post-traumatic stress, despite these horrifically ripe conditions. Radiance of Tomorrow negotiates a delicate space somewhere between psychological realism and tribal fable, letting the stories of these people cycle gently through without any amplified drama. As more and more former residents of Imperi dare to return home, Beah flashes on their unspeakable memories of the war — crowds sprayed with bullets, hands chopped off, children raped — but he never lets those searing moments overtake the novel, any more than these people allow such memories to dominate their lives. Mama Kadie may yearn to ask, “How are you, your children and grandchildren, your wife, their health?” but she knows better. “These days one must be careful to avoid awakening the pain of another.” Instead, Mama Kadie thinks, “We are here, and we must go on living.”

How unlike the therapeutic methods of the West, with its emphasis on talking about traumatic experiences as a way of putting them to rest. Here in Imperi, the past must be buried, not expressed, shared or analyzed. The stories these villagers tell one another celebrate their heritage and character. Pa Moiwa explains, “I think stories and the old ways will bring them in contact with life, with living, and with godliness again.”

In a field of neighbors’ bleached bones, that risks sounding pat, like some African Scarlett O'Hara, but Beah is quick to complicate the rebirth of Imperi in unsettling ways. “The town’s revival was fragile,” he admits. As the loosely connected episodes of Radiance of Tomorrow unfold, a host of new and old evils slither back into town. The most insidious of them is corruption, which runs like an infection through every financial and political relationship in Sierra Leone. Widespread torture and murder are more dramatic, of course — and more harrowing to read about — but in a way, they’re easier to extinguish. What Beah dramatizes in this novel is the sapping waste and grinding discouragement of trying to work in an economy hobbled by nepotism, graft and bribery, a society with only the scenery of a working legal system, where, for instance, the police regularly stop buses and demand “tax payments” from every passenger.

That climate presents a humid atmosphere for foreign exploitation, encouraged by a central government that ignores the local people’s needs and tramples on their culture. In their thirst for rutile and other minerals, including diamonds, mining companies cast over these poor people what Richard Auty once called “the resource curse.” To the arrogant white men arriving from distant places, Imperi is merely “a wretched place with beautiful things in the soil.” Extracting that value cheaply and quickly requires poisoning rivers, incinerating workers and blowing up graveyards. Complain, and you'll be arrested for slandering the benevolent job creators.

If the novel’s political argument is sometimes a bit obvious, its sympathetic exploration of the villagers’ lives is always subtle and engaging. The loosely connected episodes gradually coalesce around the experiences of two teachers, Bockarie and Benjamin, who have returned to Imperi and struggle to support their families and their students. Their industriousness is moving, but these men are up against forces insensible to their needs or their values. By the end, a conspiracy of misfortune, fraud and poverty seems completely overwhelming, a modern-day echo of what John Steinbeck and Frank Norris captured in their portrayal of ordinary folks crushed in America during the early 20th century.

But Beah has a resilient spirit and a lyrical style all his own. Even as a multitude of wearying failures mounts, his characters retain their hopefulness in a way that’s challenging and inspiring: “We must live in radiance of tomorrow, as our ancestors have suggested in their tales,” Mama Kadie tells her neighbors. “For what is yet to come tomorrow has possibilities, and we must think of it, the simplest glimpse of that possibility of goodness. That will be our strength. That has always been our strength.”

Ron Charles reviewed this book for the Washington Post.

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

  • What are you reading now?

    “I just finished A. Scott Berg’s biography of Woodrow Wilson, which was excellent. Now I’m into Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit. They both fill in a big hole in American history for me.”

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">Updike.</span> Adam Begley. Harper. 576 pages. $29.99.

    Biography

    Biography offers an enlightening view of John Updike’s work

    Biography offers an enlightening view of his work

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">A TRUST BETRAYED:</span> The Untold Story of Camp Lejeune and the Poisoning of Generations of Marines and Their Families. Mike Magner. Da Capo. 299 pages. $27.50.

    Nonfiction

    Tiny victims of a conspiracy of silence

    One of the saddest places in America has to be the humble stretch of ground at a Jacksonville, N.C., cemetery called “Baby Heaven.” Paul Stasiak, a U.S. Marine, and his wife, Darrell, buried their stillborn daughter, Eileen Marie, there in September 1966.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category