Beasts of No Nation.
Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation is a slim novel with green grass, billowy clouds and a silhouetted group of youngsters on the cover. It all looks so nonthreatening, but don't be fooled. When you open this book, be ready. The story is told by Agu, who is somewhere between the age of nine and 12; and from page one, the writer snatches the reader in and does not let go until the end. Even then. you remain disturbed, affected and intellectually breathless.
When Agu's West African village (the country is never specified) is attacked by soldiers and his father is killed, Agu (his name means "leopard" or "lion" in Igbo) escapes. He soon joins a group of militants and is forced to commit the most heinous atrocities. In turn, terrible things are done to Agu, Only another child-soldier named Strika helps Agu maintain his humanity.
The first thing readers will notice is the language. The novel is written in a sort of dialect that takes strongly from Nigerian Pidgin English, reminiscent of Ken Saro-Wiwa's Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English ["Soldier Boy"] (Passeggiata Press, 1986). Some will also compare the novel's language to Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Grove Press, 1994), which is written in broken English. Tutuola's lingo, however, had more to do with the fact that English was not his first language; Iweala is a Harvard graduate who was born in Washington, D.C.
The language in Beasts of No Nation flows wonderfully, and soon one is not only hearing Agu's words, but is also experiencing Agu's life. Is this story set in the Republic of Biafra during Nigeria's civil war (1967-1970)? It certainly seems that way. To Nigerian readers, this will definitely matter (the Biafran War is a very sore topic), but to others, it won't. The novel's content is a hybrid of multiple West African issues. As wasalso said of Saro-Wiwa's Sozaboy. Beasts of No Nation, for which Iweala recently received the Barnes & Noble Great New Writers Award, is not only a great African novel, but is also a great antiwar novel, something much needed these days.
--Reviewed by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu is the author of Zahrah the Windseeker (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).