Ishmael Beah first reached fame with the 2007 publication of his memoir A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, in which he recounted his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. Despite the success of that book, Beah wanted to address a question that he didn’t think anyone was asking: what happens after the war? What lives await people upon their return home? Beah now brings us his unique perspective and warmth for humanity in his debut novel Radiance of Tomorrow, in which we see the interwoven narratives of numerous characters attempting to return home after the war has ended. In it, Beah explores themes of home and place, of tradition and history, and power and powerlessness. Through the overlapping threads of different characters’ stories we see the struggles of returning to normalcy from both the victims and the former perpetrators of the nation’s violence as they now attempt to rebuild their lives as neighbors.
When we talk about the merits of a book we usually jump to the obvious: plot, characters, occasionally setting. Too rarely we discuss the use of language or the ability of an author to raise questions that we continue to ponder long after we’ve finished reading. Beah is no slouch at writing believable, varied characters (and there are many in this debut), characters who are far outside the usual reading fare for most of us and therefore require more careful descriptors and development. His plot stutters in places, the result of the many connected storylines he weaves in and out, and at times it was hard to know where to look or which of the many paths would be continued, but this minor flaw is easily forgiven because three weeks after finishing the book I am still thinking about it. What better marker of a great book is there than its ability to burrow into our hearts and minds and make a home for itself there?
Beah deftly raises questions that get to the heart of not just a post-war experience, but the human experience. When something changes us in deep and far-reaching ways, can we ever really go home again? Is it possible to pick up the thread of what our life was? How much of our lives do we really choose and how much is determined for us by external factors? At what point will we sacrifice our ideals or our principles? To save ourselves? If not to save ourselves, to save our children or our community’s children? The questions Beah raises are not easily answered and he doesn’t try to give us superficial answers. He and his characters wrestle with them throughout the book and we, as readers and listeners, continue to wrestle with them after we leave the characters to find their own way and we continue on in our staid, middle-class lives.
As he discusses in an author note, Beah was heavily influenced by the oral storytelling tradition of his youth, as well as by the imagery inherent in his native language, Mende. Drawing on those influences, he infuses his narrative with a distinct rhythm and imagery, as in this passage:The night’s air was pleasant on their faces since it seemed the city was opening up to them, showing them what it could provide them. But the hand of the city is unpredictable, the hand of the country is even more capricious. Often, shadows gather around the giving hand and break its fingers, spoiling the gifts.
Narrated by Dion Graham, the audio edition perfectly captures the cadence and rhythm of Beah’s oral storytelling tradition so that when I closed my eyes I felt as if I were sitting around a fire listening to these tales told by one of the village elders. While Beah’s writing alone holds a powerful lyricism, I think I would have missed much of the experience of being transported to a distant place and culture had I read this instead of listening to it.
Although there’s no final drive off into the sunset, there is a melancholic hopefulness that resonates, and I find myself wondering how the characters are doing now, as if their lives have continued beyond the last page.
Enjoy the audio clip below and let us know what you think of this new novel from Ishmael Beah. Then stop back later this week to read my interview with him.We must leave in the radiance of tomorrow, as our ancestors have suggested in their tales. 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.