The title is a promise or a plea for a bright future. But Ishmael Beah’s relentlessly heart-breaking first novel “Radiance of Tomorrow” is about the cruelty of the aftermath of the 1990s civil war in Sierra Leone.
Beah is the author of “A Long Way Gone,” his eye-opening 2007 memoir about having been forced, at 13, to commit acts of mass slaughter during the civil war. In “Radiance of Tomorrow,” the fighting is over, and the child soldiers with guns and grenades, gasoline and matches, have departed. But the country’s emotional struggles persist, present in the old bones that lie on the ground, in the missing hands and scarred cheeks, in the lingering fear that haunts the survivors’ eyes and quiets their tongues.
The novel is structured as a portrait of the reawakening of the town of Imperi, which has been empty for seven years after a devastating massacre classified by the attackers as “Operation No Living Thing.” Imperi was savaged and its inhabitants casually murdered on a Friday afternoon. The few residents who miraculously escaped have been rootless and separated, hungry and grieving, unsure of whether or not to return; “Every life seemed on hold,” Beah writes. “Nothing was sure in either direction; everything was temporary, and yet it went on for years.”
Beah begins the story as these survivors gradually return to the town over the course of a year, starting with a few of the town elders. They solemnly gather the bones, some of them chipped by machetes and bullets, letting anguish take over their faces — “driving away their shiny wrinkles even in the presence of the sun” — only when handling the bones of children. Eventually, one of the elders, Pa Kainesi, sees his son, Bockarie, with his wife and children, emerge in the distance, after thinking they might be dead. Others return, too, with new spouses and children, all ready for the spiritual guidance of the elders. Beah shows the lovely cultural respect afforded to the older people of Imperi, such a sharp contrast to the obedience and deference that was demanded by the child soldiers.
The bulk of “Radiance of Tomorrow” follows Bockarie, a schoolteacher trying to support his family. And he is an appealing central character, with his serious but loving demeanor and his passionate belief in the saving grace of education. But Beah also spends time looking more generally at the entire Imperi community. He drifts among other characters, revealing their growing interconnectedness — an elder who has lost her daughter, for example, finds solace by soothing a frightened woman who has returned with the infant conceived after she was raped. A young man who cut off hands and arms during the war comes to town to guard a maimed family, his bid for redemption.
One night, after a rare feast, the newfound closeness in Imperi becomes palpable: “The evening brought back one of the old ways and feelings, which was that children were everyone’s and that they belong to all adults.”
But the sweetness of the fresh bonds forged is increasingly undercut by growing threats in the town. Postwar corruption lurks everywhere — in a crooked school principal who is embezzling money and driving teachers away, and in a mining company that destroys the environment and abuses employees. Eventually, the people of Imperi can no longer fish in the polluted water, nor can they travel easily on the roads overrun by careless truck drivers.
Beah is chronicling the rebirth of a town, and then, disturbingly, he is chronicling its second death, this time from a more subtle and creeping kind of evil.
The language of the “Radiance of Tomorrow” — simple sentences with flashes of poetry — builds to the cadence of a fable. “My feet touched this land on the day that gave birth to this one,” says one character. Of the regathering community, Beah writes, “Curiosity engulfed the face of the sky, its stars and moon, and they turned their eyes to Imperi to see the unimpeded spirits that had returned home despite all difficulties.” In a brief author’s note, Beah explains his sometimes unusual locutions. “My mother tongue, Mende, is very expressive, very figurative, and when I write, I always struggle to find the English equivalent of things I really want to say in Mende.”
That prose style, so organic, so rich with metaphors of sky, wind, and night, adds enormous power to Beah’s already potent piece of fiction. He is telling the story of a place in the imagistic voice of its people, untethered to the more factual and chronological dictates of nonfiction. And like the inhabitants of Imperi, so unwilling to let loose with displays of grief, so given to reserve, he refuses to overdramatize. He lets the tragedies and humiliations speak for themselves. They speak loudly.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.