Review: Radiance of Tomorrow

radianceRadiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah. 2014. 9780374246020. Gr. 11-Adult

In the years since its 2007 publication, Ishmael  Beah’s compelling memoir Long Way Gone:  Memoirs of a Boy Soldier has been read by many high school students.   His harrowing, but ultimately redemptive story of his life during Sierra Leone’s civil war is a stark awakening for many teenagers about how perilous life can be for those who live in war-torn places.

Beah is now in his early thirties, married, and living in New York.  He speaks often to advocacy groups about the plight of children in war.  And he has written a new book, a novel, which addresses what happens when war ends.  How does one pick up a shattered life?  How does one find home again?  What can be reclaimed?  And what is forever changed?

Radiance of Tomorrow takes place in the village of Imperi, which has been left desolate and ruined by the civil war.  Nevertheless, two village elders return and attempt to re-establish their lives there after seven years’ absence.  Soon other villagers make their way back, and before long the village rebuilds, both physically and spiritually.  The elders revive their shared story times, a school re-opens, and local commerce resumes.  People carry terrible psychological and physical scars, but they find ways to navigate around and through them.  All seems hopeful until a new evil arrives in the form of a foreign mining company that soon wreaks havoc on Imperi.  The environment is destroyed, the local people are abused, the economy is hijacked, and despair settles in.  With few options left, many people leave the village once again and head for the capital, Freetown, where life is filled with yet more hard times.  Still, some of the characters hang on, showing remarkable resilience.  As one of them says toward the end of the book, “The world is not ending today.  You must cheer up if you want to keep living in it.”

Sometimes Beah’s story seems like a parable.  This is so, at least in part, because of the way he uses language.  In his introduction he acknowledges his intent to incorporate the storytelling and oral traditions of his native culture.  So the story is laced with lyrical descriptions of both the physical world and human nature.  “The town grew tense with the people’s quiet fury.  The atmosphere was so stiff that the wind didn’t move.”  His primary narrative voice, though, is simple and direct, allowing readers to form their own thoughts about the characters.

Whether this book will find as wide an audience with YA readers as his memoir is debatable.  The story is less harrowing, at least on the surface, and, therefore, perhaps less compelling.  Even though it is a novel, it is in some ways a sequel to his first book.  It might be a good fit as part of the formal curriculum and will almost certainly find more support if its readers have also read Long Way Gone.  The book bears some similarity with Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart.  Granted, it is corporate, not colonial, powers that invade and corrupt. Perhaps it could be paired with that book as well.  Either way, I hope it finds a strong readership.

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