I’m not at all sure why I want to review this novel. It’s both horrifying and fascinating as other readers have said, and yet it still feels really incomplete. In fact, I think the ending was a complete cop-out of the ending that Iweala should have taken. However, I am the “normal” state school college graduate and he is the Harvard alum who has spent lives in both Nigeria and America. (He has also worked at refugee camps). Does this mean though that his story should be told?
Let’s dive in.
Beasts of No Nation is the story of a child soldier named Agu who is at one point top of his class and living in his four-people family unit, then quickly thrust into the arms of a dictator Commandant who abuses him in all sorts of ways, some of them beyond even the Commandment’s control. This is horrifying, yes? A child is sexually abused by the head of an army, his only friend another child who doesn’t speak at all. They are forced to carry a gun, march through broken bones and fed the trash of villages already thrashed through. He experiences his first sexual awakening (although we have no age for Agu, we can assume that he is well before sexual enlightening years). He experiences torn thoughts on killing others; on the one side believing he is still a good boy and on the other believing he is the devil. I can’t disagree that the unfolding isn’t chilling.
However, I don’t think Iweala captures it completely. The only time I was completely disgusted was during a rape between Agu and his superior…as anyone would be disgusted just by the content. He hasn’t sold me on the voice of Agu and his use of repetition, and no real grammar. I think the child voice is spot on, but the accent needs work, and the author admits this in the gray pages of the end. However, I’ve never heard West African English and so I can’t judge that this isn’t just my Southern, girl interpretation, or if it’s actually really a linguistic feature of the villages.
I think what disappointed me the most was my lack of feeling for Agu. Here is this boy who has gone through nine lives of war in his one short boyhood and I am not connected with him every second. I do not feel the need to comfort him. I don’t immediately want to google child soldiers after I finish the book to learn more. Honestly, I don’t think this book even brings child soldier’s justice, even though it is dedicated to those who have suffered. The most fascinating part of the book was the bio of Uzodinma Iweala at the end, which I’m sure Harper Perennial insisted on. The real reason this book is great is because of the message it tells people like me, who live everyday thinking a stop light is a disaster.
I feel like a horrible human being for not totally buying into this book. I feel like this might be my inward struggle with the realness. Maybe I’m not ready to face the fact that this happens to people. Maybe I should remember that I’m a girl too afraid to watch Blood Diamond because of my future thoughts on engagement rings.
I think the two things that bother me most were my want and need that the main character of this book should be the child who did not speak: Strika. How badly I want to know what that boy is thinking, how badly I want to know his own horrors to understand his silence. While the dialogue for Agu always made sense, this was a book of his thoughts. He is not silent, but what is better than having the thoughts of a silent victim on the page (Strika, Agu’s best friend).
My other problem with this book is that Agu leaves his fellow soldiers after the death of his friend, and walks off into the sunlight, (spoiler) only to be saved in the next chapter. The very last chapter is a glimpse of the refugee camp with what seems to be a white counselor trying to talk Agu through his survival and his conscience. I may be the only one who feels this way, but Agu should have died. In order to understand the brutality of the situation, Agu should have died and been saved through his own death. He should not live on because of the reader’s hopes of a happy ending, or the need for the author to make hope out of a war that isn’t over. Agu has killed, and yes his psyche is all off, and his emotions and humanhood are all screwed-up, he is completely brain washed into these killings, but then I want his death to be his redemption. The true end to this story was redemption through death and Iweala fails to find it. This refugee camp is a cop out. And now I’m all angry.
Really, you would think I’d be happy Agu was saved, but I’m not. I’m that sort of person that an ending of a book is more important to me than the happiness of readers at the end. We didn’t need this sewed up and tied with a bow. We did not need the yams and the rice to fill his stomach after starvation. We DEFINITELY didn’t need some white therapist stepping in to work through his child soldier memories. That last part probably disturbs me the most because it ends on this note that white people are saving West Africa, or that white people are the saviors that everyone needs, or that the white mentality is stronger and better than the mentalities of other races.
What it basically says is that white (american) people understand, and will help. (Let me speak for the group really quickly…I know this is not everyone’s feelings)…WHAT DO WE UNDERSTAND? I don’t understand a damn thing about child trafficking, violence, or child soldiers in war. Here in the US we let young men fight at the age of eighteen and when they die we tell ourselves that they lived a full life, filled with proms and football games. We don’t understand the brutality of children fighting in war, children sewing together Nike’s in factories, the cost of one large diamond for our ring finger. Oh, you mean people died from this? I’m just a bit disgusted with the “white savior” at the end of this book. Do we have to be constantly bombarded with this idea?
I’m not even sure I’ll post this blog at this point. I feel like people are going to be offended. (Side note: I asked my mother and three bloggers I really trust to look over this blog before posting it to make sure I didn’t hurt anyone. It would pain me incredibly if anyone was offended by this blog and thus why I asked for others opinions).
I’ve learned throughout my life that you can’t say “I don’t see color,” because then you’re taking the uniqueness away from every person in a room. You’re removing people’s history, people’s culture, people’s identities even.
So, while I recommend this book because some people need their eyes open to the cruelties of the world (me), I don’t think it’s the best book on the subject, and I think Iweala could have handled it better. I actually do believe he will as he continues writing his heart.
In trying to help somehow with the cause of child soldiers, here are some links that I believe in.
- Falling Whistles is to promote peace in Congo. The original story deals with boys who are sent to the front lines of war armed with only a whistle. With your purchase of a whistle, you’re giving survival options to children in Congo through rehabilitation, education, art, human rights education, vocational skills, and nutritional services.
- BBC World Service | Children of Conflict
- Feb. 7th, 2012: It’s still happening. Deportation from US.
- Children Soldiers return to Congolese wars.
- Child Soldier. CA to donate
Here are other reviews by bloggers: