Reviewed by Tiffany M. Davis
Tags: Ishmael Beah, Sarah Crichton Books, Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone, child soldiers
Ishmael Beah burst on the publishing scene in 2007 with his critically acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Gone, a personal account of growing up in the aftermath of the Sierra Leone civil war. Now he returns with a fictionalized account of a village trying to bounce back after a civil war in Radiance of Tomorrow.
The novel primarily centers around Imperi, a deserted village in Sierra Leone. Two of the village’s elders, Kadie and Moiwa, are the first to return to their decimated village, and they reacquaint themselves with each other as they locate and bury the bones of the fallen. Soon, others return to the village and it slowly rebuilds, to the point where the children are able to go to a school taught by two village residents, Bockarie and Benjamin. But life in the post-war village quickly turns sour as government officials move in to dig for diamonds in the nearby mountains, and Bockarie and Benjamin are the victims of embezzlement. This forces Bockarie and Benjamin to work in the mines, which pays more but is extremely dangerous. Eventually, Imperi is designated to be a repository of the minerals that the government covets, and its inhabitants are forced to relocate. Bockarie eventually moves his family to the capitol city for better job and living opportunities.
The overlying theme of the novel is rebuilding from the ashes of destruction, and also of the concept of the village banding together as a fortified unit against outsiders, in a world where the village is no longer a priority. A secondary theme is that of old ways coming up against new ways, and the power of the many over the rights of the few. Beah did well in demonstrating these themes, which include the abuse of power and ends justifying the means. Events unfold in a very real way, and it is obvious that the author draws from his personal experiences and observations.
However, the lyrical quality of the prose does little to augment the choppiness of the plot’s flow. Beah’s writing style could be compared in a fledgling way to that of prominent Nigerian authors Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta or Wole Soyinka; unfortunately, Beah is unable to translate fable to the page as well as the aforementioned literary greats. The attempts to make native proverbs and idiom palatable to the masses fell short; the character dialogue and internal monologue come off as stiff and sometimes confusing, which leads to a difficult reading experience. The novel was too easy to pick up and put it back down, as it did not hold this reader’s attention as strongly as it should have.
There were also too many characters in this book to do each of them justice. Indeed, the sheer quantity of characters further distracted from the story. Characters were mentioned and given partial development, only to be abandoned as the story progressed. This led to missed opportunities to deepen the storyline and make for a more engaging read. In particular, the characters Colonel and Ernest were characters I would have liked to see more of, as they seemed to have nuances that were more interesting than those of the main characters. Both were former child soldiers who had given up that life, though elements of that life continued to play out in their everyday lives. Colonel retained remnants of that life as he offered himself as the unofficial protector of Imperi. Ernest renounced the violence of his former life, though he was faced with the consequences of that life when he arrived in Imperi.
Success in one genre doesn’t automatically translate into success in another; Beah’s first attempt at a fiction novel did not provide the same emotional pull as A Long Way Gone. This may simply be a case of first-novel blues, or it could be that Beah’s strength lies in nonfiction. Either way, Radiance of Tomorrow does not shine as brightly as it could have on its maiden voyage.
Tiffany M. Davis is the Senior Editor of QBR: The Black Book Review. She has been published in anthologies and The Backlist newsletter, and has contributed her award-winning writing and editorial services to clients that include National Geographic, Sodexho, the American Society for Cell Biology, and Triple Crown Publications. A graduate of Georgetown University and a former chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America, she currently lives in Georgia.