Ishmael Beah was 12 when his family was killed during Sierra Leone’s civil war. He later became a child soldier, writing about the brutal acts he was forced to commit as a young teen in his searing 2007 memoir “A Long Way Gone.”
“A Long Way Gone” became an international bestseller, with more than 1.5 million copies sold, according to its publisher. The memoir has been taught widely in colleges and universities. Beah, who was rescued with the help of UNICEF in 1997 and brought to the United States, has since become a UNICEF ambassador and advocate for children affected by war.
The 33-year-old writer returns to the aftermath of that war in his humbling first novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, which uses the gentle, haunting language of fable to describe a heartrending present.
Beah’s memoir came under scrutiny after Australian journalists at a Rupert Murdoch-owned paper raised questions about the veracity of certain incidents and the timeline during which they occurred.
That won’t be a factor for the novel, which uses fiction to examine the possibility of creating a future in the wake of such an all-engulfing past.
When “Radiance of Tomorrow” opens, Mama Kadie and two other elders have returned to the village of Imperi.
The village has been abandoned since Operation No Living Thing, when the soldiers came, torturing and killing everyone they could find. The few survivors have lived in a kind of limbo, hiding for years from the violence of the warring factions.
“Every life seemed on hold,” Beah writes. “Nothing was sure in either direction; everything was temporary, and yet it went on for years.”
The elders cleanse the village, giving their loved ones a proper burial. Then, slowly, survivors start to return. The novel centers around Bockarie and Benjamin, the village’s two teachers, who are trying to build new lives for themselves and their families.
Former child soldiers also are among those who come to Imperi, including the Colonel, a quietly efficient teenager who takes care of the other children, and Ernest, who has become the shadow of a family whose hands he was ordered to chop off with a machete.
While his presence is disquieting, to say the least, Ernest is determined to make amends, although in his own mind he acknowledges the impossibility of ever balancing the scales.
Meanwhile, the village elders – along with the other survivors – struggle to determine which of the values of the past still hold true and might offer succor. “The war has changed us, but I hope not so much that we’ll never find our way back. I could have never imagined a world where the presence of a child brings something other than joy,” Mama Kadie says.
But the civil war turns out not to be the only tragedy facing Imperi, which finds itself regarded simultaneously as an impediment to and a source of expendable labor for a Western diamond mining operation. The old ways offer slender protection against corruption, bribery, and rapaciousness, and Imperi finds itself being wiped out a second time – this time by a different kind of warfare.
But Beah’s characters have a resilience and an ability to quietly nurture hope that is humbling to read about. These characters have suffered things beyond the imaginings of most of the novel’s Western readers, yet they refuse to despair.
“Radiance of Tomorrow” eschews melodrama and histrionics, matter-of-factly describing the most awful of events in a way in keeping with the air of reserve that Beah’s characters display. While there is little in the way of a happy ending, life endures.
“We must live in radiance of tomorrow, as our ancestors have suggested in their tales,” Mama Kadie says in the passage that gives the novel its title. “For what is yet to come tomorrow has possibilities, and we must think of it, the simplest glimpse of that possibility of goodness. That will be our strength. That has always been our strength.”
Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor fiction critic.
Check out a preview of the audiobook.