Picks and Pans Review: Beasts of No Nation

UPDATED 11/14/2005 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/14/2005 at 01:00 AM EST

NOVEL

by Uzodinma Iweala

CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Set in an unnamed West African country splintered by civil war, Uzodinma Iweala's brilliant debut tells the story of Agu, a boy drafted into a platoon of rebels. Told in the first person, Iweala's anguished, matter-of-fact narrative is amplified by Agu's soft-spoken patois. In Beasts of No Nation, less is much more. “If I am doing all of this good thing and now only doing what soldier is supposed to be doing,” Agu asks himself, comparing his schoolboy life to his current situation, “then how can I be bad boy?” The answer is far more complicated than Agu's broken English lets on. Over the course of the novel's brisk 142 pages, Agu and his friend Strika remain engaging heroes even as they are forced to murder and pillage. Other members of the group are less reluctant to follow orders. When a soldier named Luftenant dies of stab wounds, he teaches a bitter lesson: “I am seeing that the only way not to be fighting is to die,” Agu realizes. “I am not wanting to die.” Iweala refuses to judge his characters, though the atrocities they commit are horrifying. As a result Agu leaps off the page, a child of war in the midst of a harrowing ordeal. This is a remarkable novel; that its author is just 23—a recent Harvard grad who grew up in both Washington, D.C., and Nigeria suggests a dazzling literary future.

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