In Ishmael Beah’s “Radiance of Tomorrow,” people in the West African country of Sierra Leone try to recover from a lengthy and brutal civil war. Seven years after the reign of “No Living Thing” — when combatants wantonly killed everyone they encountered — people slowly repopulate the village of Imperi.
The dust jacket of this appealing first novel correctly describes the story as having “the gentle lyricism of a dream and the moral clarity of a fable.” The very straightforward plot is about the effort to hold on to what’s important and the centrality of hope as the villagers struggle toward their future.
As one of the village elders says, “We must live in the radiance of tomorrow, as our ancestors have suggested in their tales. 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.”
Several elders are the first arrivals in the burned-out ruins of the village. Over time, people with families follow, as does a small group of older teenagers, who don’t explain their past and mostly keep to themselves. They clearly have the skills and discipline that come with having been child soldiers.
Over the course of a couple years, life seems to return to normal. Bockarie, who along with his family is a particular focus, begins to teach at a resurrected secondary school nearby. Village children learn to love the elders’ stories the way Bockarie did as a boy.
But life does not continue to go smoothly. The school principal is corrupt, and teachers go months without being paid. More importantly, village life suffers a serious disruption when the area paramount chief gives permission to an international company to mine for “rutile” (used in paint, plastics, food and sunscreen) — and anything else they turn up, such as bauxite and diamonds.
Eventually, life in Imperi changes so much that Bockarie takes his family to seek a better life in the capital, Freetown. There, life is far from easy. As his wife says, the “city has so much to teach one every day. It is as though you are living several lifetimes every time you look around. … [T]he hand of the city is unpredictable… . Often shadows gather around the giving hand and break its fingers, spoiling the gifts.”
Beah is particularly well-suited to tell this story. His first book, “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” stunningly describes his experience as a young teenager pressed into fighting in the forest as a government soldier.
He says that he wrote the memoir from a 12 year-old’s point of view. The brutality he and others perpetrated is graphic and imponderable. (He gains a promotion to “junior lieutenant” by winning a contest, slitting the throat of a captive faster than the other children.) That Beah, through rehabilitation, has been able to regain his humanity is even harder to believe.
Beah has said that it was much easier to become a killer than it was to return to normal life. He is now able to say that the strength of his new, good memories outweighs the bad memories of his life as a child soldier. But getting to that point took a lot of effort, as well as the determination and kindness of others.
“Radiance of Tomorrow” describes the efforts of ordinary Sierra Leoneans as they try to make the same journey back to a normal life: “How do you do that? How do you try to shape a future if you have a past that’s still pulling at you?”
A prominent character in “Radiance” is Colonel, the leader of the young group of former soldiers. When they arrive in the village, “His face was so hardened, dark, and harsh that you knew that no smile or even smirk had passed on it for years. His eyes surveyed the town not in the way the other arrivals had, with hesitation, but more with a confidence that showed he feared nothing.”
Although he and the other former child soldiers keep themselves at a distance, Colonel is respectful of the elders and supportive of the effort to re-establish Imperi. Also, he is the one person in the village with the skills and the courage to take revenge for the depredations of the mining company’s employees. The reader can’t help but wonder whether, on some level, Beah imagined himself in creating Colonel as the story’s avenging angel.
Beah is a native speaker of Mende, which he describes as being more evocative and descriptive than English. “For example, in Mende, you wouldn’t say ‘night came suddenly’; you would say ‘the sky rolled over and changed its sides.’” The conversation of the elders in “Radiance” reflects this quality. In crafting their words, Beah provides insight into the way villagers see the world and live in it.
Particularly when the story is taking place in the village, Beah’s use of language is unique. The reader learns about rural traditions and, also, when the story migrates to Freetown, about life for average people in a large West African capital city.