The civil war in Sierra Leone has ended and people are beginning to head home. Two of these people are Benjamin and Bockarie, who arrive in Imperi to find nothing but ruins and bones. But as more villagers come back, a community springs up in its place. Both Benjamin and Bockarie return to their former jobs as teachers but they quickly learn that it’s not so easy to return to the way things were.
A foreign mining company has set up in Imperi and while they promise to bring good to the town, they are bringing the opposite. The towns water supply has been ruined and the streets are strewn with electric wires. Rape and death have become common, the locals who go to work for the company are treated as expendable. But for people like Benjamin and Bockarie, working for the company becomes the only option for survival.
Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah is a beautiful, lyrical novel about post-war nations and the trauma of those who lived there. Beah first came to our attention in 2007 with his powerful memoir A Long Way Gone in which he shared his life as a child soldier in Sierra Leone. He turns his attention to after the war through the lens of fiction, though as you read this book you understand how heartbreakingly true it all is.
This novel is just so beautifully written. Beah mentions in the author’s note how he didn’t want to write another memoir but felt that this post-war story needed to be told. Putting this account into a novel was a great idea. He also shares that his native language, Mende, is an expressive and beautiful language and he finds it difficult to find the English equivalent when writing. There is absolutely no sense of that in this book. The first paragraph drew me right in and told me that this wouldn’t be an ordinary novel:
She was the first to arrive where it seemed the wind no longer exhaled. Several miles from town, the trees had entangled one another. Their branches grew toward the ground, burying the leaves in the soil to blind their eyes so the sun would not promise them tomorrow with its rays. It was only the path that was reluctant to cloak its surface completely with grasses, as though it anticipated it would soon end its starvation for the warmth of bare feet that gave it life. (pg. 3)
There is nothing in this book I can criticize. When it needs to be descriptive and lyrical, it is. When it needs to be straight-forward, it is. It will make you smile, it will break your heart. Most importantly, it will inspire. Few of us will be able to understand the horrors of war or the struggle to build a life after it. But through that, Beah shows us the strength and determination that lies in us all.