four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
21-Mar-Apr-2006
user_rating: 
0

A-BeastsOfNoNationDuring the civil war of an unnamed West African nation, a young, gentle boy named Agu trades in his family, church, and friends for guns and knives. When militants murder his father and his mother and sister flee, a boy-soldier invites him to join a group of guerrillas led by a brutal but charismatic leader. Though at first Agu can’t kill, brutality becomes strangely normal. To his dismay, Agu soon likes "how the gun is shooting and the knife is chopping. I am liking to see people running from me and people screaming for me when I am killing them and taking their blood. I am liking to kill." As Agu struggles to understand the civil war that claimed his family and ripped apart a nation, he also tries to discover his own humanity after the horror, fear, and bloodshed have ended.
HarperCollins. 160 pages. $16.95. ISBN: 006079867X

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Deceptively slim … its devastating story carries more heft than books three times its length, offering insight into a guerrilla technique rarely covered by the press—the use of child soldiers. … Beasts of No Nation is riveting fiction." Vikas Turakhia

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"The acute characterization, the adroit mixture of color and restraint, and the horrific emotional force of the narrative are impressive. … Iweala shows Agu acting out the worst atrocities imaginable, but still we rush to forgive him." Simon Baker

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"With stark, unsparing clarity, Agu relates the catalogue of horrors that befall him—and that he inflicts on others. That ought to make Beasts of No Nation unbearable to read. Yet Iweala’s handling of language—equal parts West African lilt and child’s naive sing-song—acts almost as an anaesthetic, allowing you to see what’s being shown here." Michael Upchurch

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Using a present-tense, infinitive-driven idiom, the narrator, Agu, relates his simultaneous roles as lamb and butcher, victim and killer. … The premise is that if he finds a way out of bad-boyhood, then he has a chance to rejoin good-boyhood." Roger Kaplan

San Diego Union-Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This is the arena of children at war, where brutality and innocence remain locked in battle. Such children, if allowed to live long enough, soon find something new to love: violence itself." Seth Taylor

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While the personal narrative is intensely revealing, after finishing the book, one wants more—more history, scope and length. Still, what it seems to lack in pages, it compensates for in depth." Diana Abu-Jaber

Critical Summary

Iweala, 23, a first-time novelist, does not know violence firsthand. But as an undergraduate at Harvard, he traveled to Nigeria, conducted research, and turned his senior thesis (directed by Jamaica Kincaid) into a novel. The topic couldn’t be timelier: an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 child soldiers currently fight in armed conflicts around the world. Written in an appropriately choppy, raw present-tense that captures Agu’s visceral, gut-wrenching emotions as he kills innocent women and children, Beasts introduces a powerful new voice in fiction. It’s not an easy one to swallow, however. But despite Agu’s transformation, critics remained astonishingly sympathetic to him until the end. Though circumstances may shape people forever, "Iweala seems to tell us in this potent work, no one—especially a child—is ever totally beyond hope" (San Francisco Chronicle).