Anyone who knows me, knows I love books. They are tireless storytellers. Always available, ready and eager to tell you a new tale. One that promises to take you to another world. Worlds that are sometimes pleasant, uplifting and full of great lessons. Other times, you get a tale of unhappy worlds. Ones that are daunting, full of pain and despair. Or you get a world that just doesn’t fit into a category. A haunting yet soothing nightmare. Depressing yet exhilarating. A world foul and worthy of condemnation, yet there’s a tiny air of hope. That’s the world Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala takes the reader into.
It’s set in an unknown West African country and follows a child soldier named Agu. Because it’s written in first person POV, you’re fully immersed in Agu’s painful journey. It’s easy to understand him even though the novel is written in broken English or as we West Africans call it, Pidgin English. You see Agu go from being an innocent little boy to a “man.” A “man” who butchers, kills and rapes the unknowing victims in his path. He too is a victim to The Commandant, a brutal, predatory father figure whom he loathes but sometimes admires. He bemoans the idea that he is no longer a little innocent boy. That his bloody experiences have washed it away. He wonders about God, the God he grew up believing in. The God who seems to have turned a blind eye to not just his suffering but the agony he inflicts on many men, women, and children throughout the villages he travels through. He questions whether God will ever forgive him. He wishes to stop fighting, to stop killing, but laments the fact that in his present world, the only time the killing stops is when you die. He doesn’t want to die.
One of my favorite lines in the book is when Agu questions how the sun can continue to shine so brightly amidst the chaos. “If I am sun,” he says, “I will be finding another place to be shining where people are not using my light to be doing terrible terrible thing.” This is just one of his many harrowing thoughts.
Ultimately, I think the novel explores what it means to be human. What drives our humanness. What it is that makes us do the horrible things we do to our fellow humans. How we process those appalling deeds and why we continue on even when we know it’s wrong. Even when it pains us to do them. How we ourselves cope with suffering, hopelessness, the unending smell and presence of death around us. It’s about the death of innocence but also about its tenacious grip. Finally, it’s about hope, albeit small. Hope of someday prevailing from the arduous situations around us. As I turned each and every page, I couldn’t help but to pray and anticipate when Agu would finally be free. Free from having to kill or the fear of being killed.
I know some have seen the Netflix film adaptation. I haven’t, but now that I’ve read the book, I will. I highly recommend you read it too. Besides, movies are seldom as great as the novels from which they are derived. So go ahead. Buy, checkout, and read Beasts of No Nation. It’s only 142 pages long so it’s doable in just a few hours. Happy reading…although happy isn’t the best word to describe this book!