Book Review: Beasts Of No Nation

It is stunning to think that Uzodinma Iweala was only 23 when he wrote Beasts of No Nation. The book is a haunting debut where readers are sucked into a gruesome civil war in an unnamed African country from the first page of the 142-page novel. There’s blood, there’s gore, rampant savagery, rape, sexual abuse, and the utter hopelessness of a nation torn by internal strife and mindless violence.

The protagonist of the novel, Agu, is a young, studious boy who is one day uprooted from his peaceful family life and thrown into the barbaric world of a child soldier. Given the choice to live and join the rebels or death, Agu chooses the former. His transition to a child soldier is not without obstacles as he is in a constant battle with his internal conscience, trying to justify to himself (and to the readers) his actions. At one point, he says “If I am doing all of this good thing and now only doing what soldier is supposed to be doing, then how can I be bad boy?”

His justifications are, however, now spared the horror both Agu, and the readers, feel when he kills. Recalling his first kill:

It is like the world is moving slowly and I am seeing each drop of blood and each drop of sweat flying here and there. I am hearing the bird flapping their wing as they are leaving all the tree. It is sounding like thunder. I am hearing the mosquito buzzing in my ear so loud and I am feeling how the blood is just wetting on my leg and my face. The enemy’s body is having deep red cut everywhere and his forehead is looking just crushed so his whole face is not even looking like face because his head is broken everywhere and there is just blood, blood, blood… I am hearing hammer knocking in my head and chest. My nose and mouth is itching. I am seeing all the color everywhere and my belly is feeling empty. I am growing hard between my legs. Is this like falling in love?

The description is powerful and intense, and shows the toll it takes on him. The allusion to falling in love is a throwback to what the Commandant of the militia told Agu about killing, alluding it to love. Similar language is seen throughout the book, where Agu’s experiences as a child soldier are amplified and presented as almost out-of-the-world types.

Iweala’s use of the present tense also makes the action, and the violence, more real. On one hand, readers are walking side by side with Agu as the militia goes raiding through villages; on the other, they are paralyzed with fear as they watch Agu, and his compatriots, hack down innocent civilians to death. Intentional grammar, tense, and syntax disagreements throughout the book make the language a patois and distinctly places it within Africa.

Agu’s life as a child soldier is interspersed with his past life in the relative peace and quiet before the outbreak of war. His father, presumed dead in the present, was a school teacher; his mother was religiously devout; he had a sister, friends, neighbors, and a full community of people. The novel is quick to remind readers that this past, which Agu longs for, is gone and replaced by the brutal reality of civil war.

As the novel progresses, Agu finds himself becoming more isolated from the world as it burns up in flames all around him. His only true friend and companion in the novel is a young boy named Strika. It is implied that Strika had become psychologically mute due to the horrors he witnessed in the war. Though Strika doesn’t talk, not until his final moments in the book, his presence serves to ground Agu in his new reality. Both  him and Agu are shown to  be innocent, young boys who are dragged into the quarrels of grown men; yet readers are again reminded that age bears no limit to barbarity and violence as both Agu and Strika strike down civilians to death without mercy. There is, however, solidarity between them in their suffering.

The novel’s shortness doesn’t deter its delivery of a powerful message about the horrors of civil wars. History is filled with examples, not only in the African continent, where nations devolved into violence and savagery and their traumatic consequences on generations of youth. What hits home with Beasts of No Nation is its current relevance as child soldiers are still in abundance throughout the African continent.

Personally I didn’t enjoy this book; and I mean that as a compliment because it is hard to enjoy something so horrific and so anguishing as Beasts of No Nation. There were times when the violence that came out of the pages because so overwhelming, I had to put down the book and breathe. It always reminded me of my position in this situation; I was an observer with a free pass to walk away whenever things became too much to bear. It also reminded me, like a sharp jab to the ribs, for some this is still the reality with no route for escape, except death.

Beasts of No Nation ends with Agu walking down the road, literally and metaphorically, to recovery after he escapes the militia. As he remembers his old life, the aftermath of his brief time as a child soldier bears down on him, cold and unforgiving. He says “I am remembering the sound of people coughing…the smell of…dead body everywhere. This is the only thing that I am knowing,” and readers know it is something that will continue to haunt him as long as he lives.

[Read | Skim | Toss]

[Buy | Borrow]

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