Reading Uzodinma Iweala's debut novel, one feels a sense of excitement about the arrival of such a competent new voice in fiction. There is a steady, insightful, lucid quality to his story of a child soldier in Africa that suggests a studied commitment to the craft of storytelling and a talent that outweighs the necessity for bombastic prose. Straightforward, shocking, and refreshingly clear, Beasts of No Nation is a very skillfully written book.
The story is narrated by Agu, a child in an unidentified West African nation who flees his village during the onset of war, sees his father killed, and is forcefully conscripted into a band of mercenary soldiers. What follows is a sequence of atrocities that Agu must participate in, digest, and ultimately carry the burden of. At the command of the traveling soldiers, Agu murders villagers, pillages homes, and commits rape, all of which tests his faith in humanity and his own identity. One of the striking features of the story is how seamlessly the documentation of war and Agu's strange coming-of-age journey are integrated into a single narrative. To this end, the juxtaposing potential of the narrative voice is used to great effect: The language Agu uses to describe the violence and horror of his everyday life with the soldiers is simple and raw, and its impact is only heightened by skillful shifts from the description of a massacre to the repetition of the sentence "I felt thirsty." Descriptions move from beautiful to funny to unpleasant with strength and fluidity.
Agu's journey is both sad and unique: His loss of innocence is not subtle or gentle, but painfully wrenched from his sudden immersion into unmitigated violence and human cruelty. While Agu reflects upon the significance of what he's doing, his own powerlessness frustrates him so much that the best he can do is suffer in the silent hope that he'll find his way to a salvaged future.
Beasts of No Nation is an exciting new work of fiction about Africa, and a tightly fashioned first-person narrative. Iweala has crafted a truly unforgettable, gripping, and enlightening book.