Title: Beasts of No Nation
Author: Uzodinma Iweala
Number of Pages: 142
Beasts of No Nation tells the bleak, violent story of a young African boy named Agu who is forced to fight as a child soldier after he is separated from his mom and sister and his father is killed. Perpetually hungry, tired, and malnourished, Agu participates in various atrocities and is continually manipulated and sexually molested by the leader of the group of renegade soldiers, Commandant. As Agu’s childhood comes to an end, he dreams of a day when there will be no more fighting and he will be reunited with his remaining family.
It took me a couple of tries to get through this novel, because I initially found the writing style alienating. Agu’s handle on language is dubious, and the book is written in a manner that is deliberately grammatically incorrect and can be very hard to get into at first. When I finally picked up Beasts of No Nation and read it all the way through, I started to warm up to the flow of the writing which was sometimes frustrating, but also very beautiful at times. I’ve read a fair amount of novels with child narrators, but I felt that Agu’s character individuated himself very well among hordes of books with young protagonists.
I did feel that Agu devolved into violence and barbarianism a little bit too quickly, allowing very little time for his acclimation to violence to develop. It felt like at the beginning he was just a normal kid and within just a couple of chapters he is participating in slaughtering civilians as if he’s been doing it a long time. Even though Agu does things that are horrifying and completely morally unconscionable I couldn’t help but feel for his character, and the ending of the novel actually made me get choked up. I don’t think a book has had that effect on me in a long time.
I’m looking forward to eventually reading Uzodinma Iweala’s second novel, Speak No Evil. I’m interested in how he makes the transition from child soldiers to homophobia and conversion therapy. I think he has enormous potential as a writer and from the author interview at the end of the book he seems like a really cool guy. I watched the film adaptation of Beasts of No Nation before I read the book, which I usually try not to do. I liked them both, and I recommend that people read the book first and then see the movie, the exact opposite of what I did.
I also recommend A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah as a companion read to this one. A Long Way Gone is actually the more powerful book, probably because it is a true story written by someone who actually experienced being a child soldier, but I think both books deserve to be read. Beasts of No Nation is further proof that giving a novel another chance is sometimes a good decision, even if you initially can’t get into it. It’s definitely not a happy story, but I feel it’s one that will stick with me for a long time.
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