You know the feeling you get when you finish a book that you never wanted to end, and you don’t know what to do with your life because you felt so attached to the characters that you aren’t ready to move on yet? Beasts of No Nations is not one of those books.
Uzodinma Iweala is an American doctor and author of Nigerian descent, with a Harvard education. His first novel, published in 2005, tells Agu’s story as a child solider, fighting in an unnamed country in Africa. Agu is left family-less and homeless after his village is attacked. He runs into hiding, but is found by Strika – a mute, young soldier, and soon to be only trusted friend – who brings him to Commandant to join their army. Commandant indulges in the violence that this war brings, looking for villages to rob, women to rape, people to torture and kill, leading these young boys into this horrific world.
The narrative is in present tense pidgin English, which can be difficult and unnatural at first. Give it a chapter or two, and you’ll have gotten used to this. Will this affect your experience of this book if you do struggle with this voice? I would say no. To be honest, it wasn’t until half way through the book that I finally felt some attachment to Agu. (Does this make me a bad person?) Until then, I wasn’t fully drawn into the book. Reading the first half, I felt distant, as if I was talking to a friend of a friend who knew Agu, rather than hearing Agu’s story from his own voice. Don’t let this put you off, by any means!
Though I was sceptical to begin with, Agu’s voice does become more and more convincing. In chapter one we are thrown straight into the world of this army. Agu’s narrative weaves between his present life of violence and starvation, and reminiscent memories of his life before he entered this brutal world. We read his confusion as he tries to understand his fear when he’s holding a gun, and his pleas to God, questioning what it means to be a good person and a good soldier. He talks to us as if he is vocalising his mind, and they read like the natural flowing thoughts of a child with many questions, trying to interpret the world he has been thrown into. The later into the book you are, the more improved Iweala’s writing style is, and the more convincing Agu’s voice becomes.
There was a single moment when, suddenly, the words I was reading felt raw and real. When Agu tells us how Commandant demands him to ‘touch his soldier’, manipulating him saying how a good soldier follows orders, I found myself gasping and making horrified faces. He confides in us, and we hear his thoughts and his confusion of knowing something is wrong but being too terrified to stand up to this man in a position of power, a man who has taken him in, who could so easily dispose of him. Iweala shows us that abuse and violence show no boundaries and are more complex than simply ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Strika and Agu’s relationship is compelling, though it could have done with more exploration. It’s an unusual friendship built on unfortunate foundations, their initial commonality being their age. Surrounded by ‘beasts’ and dangerous men, they are weak and alone after being forced to face this war too young. They talk of their private moments with Commandment. Strika, still mute, draws on the ground as he responds to Agu. This moment depicts the trust and bond between the two boys. It is truly heartbreaking. “The picture was very funny, but I am not smiling, I was feeling I can never be smiling again.” The heartbreak continues when Agu is left with a difficult decision; to stay with Strika, dying on the roadside, and be left behind, or to leave Strika behind to catch up with the army so he is not alone. Agu’s decision shows us the value of his unity with Strika and reminds us that, though he was so intensely exposed to this relentless brutality, he did not learn this to be right. This moment is crucial, and I could feel my eyes welling up as I was reading.
By the time I finished, I was relieved and ready to close the book. Iweala ends the narrative at the perfect moment, leaving us with a glimmer of hope for Agu. Beasts of No Nation is by no means perfect. But if you can make it through the first few chapters, it will certainly give you a reading experience you’ve never had.
Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala is available now.