Book Review

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala

fiction about child soldiers that felt a little underdone

Montreal, March 13th, 10.30pm

It’s much easier to buy alcohol here than over in Presbyterian Ontario, so I am filling my evening with some visceral, physical, pleasure, and I’m having a pre-midnight feast of Cheetos and Cremant, the e-numbers and sugars of which are probably setting me up for yet another terrible night’s sleep! Buuuuuut it’s better to pass out than to be awake and thinking, ammaright????

This will also be a short one. I’m in my scuzzy hotel room (yes, the one I flooded with poo water earlier – even the carpet outside my room looks damp (tho it may have been permanently stained on a prior occasion?)) and have just finished my second completely inappropriate for a holiday novel: Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala. I recognised the name of the novel when I saw this nicely-designed edition recently, and the blurb sealed the deal: it’s time for an acclaimed evocation of of the very real horrors of child soldiers!

If the author bio and acknowledgement pages, tho, are anything to go by, Uzodinma Iweala is not a writer who has any more firsthand – or even direct secondhand – experience of child soldiers than any other writer plucked at random from the special slush pile reserved for Harvard University & Columbia Medical School graduates. There is no sentence thanking the interviewees Iweala spoke with, no paragraph detailing why he thought this was a story that should be told, and no information on how he, personally, was inspired to write about this weighty subject.

Maybe it’s because the novel is a couple of decades old that it doesn’t have this, maybe Iweala actually did have a direct connection with children who had been through this experience and maybe this novel is a true-to-life account of the unrepentant horrors of war. I don’t know, Wikipedia doesn’t help either.


The leader of the group of guerrilla soldiers the protagonist winds up with has no clear agenda and no clear plan, and no connections with any other “rebel” groups.

The narrative is simple: a child escapes from a massacre almost certainly perpetuated by the same “friendly soldiers” who find him, starving, on the road a day later. He joins them, he is groomed to kill, to rape, to be raped by the commander, to massacre, to steal, to torture. It’s unrelenting, until it isn’t, as slowly all of the “soldiers” the child is with are picked off and he, very much visibly a child, is picked up by aid workers and ends the novel hanging out on a beach with a white American woman called Amy who cries when he hints at the details of his recent experiences.

Maybe Iweala was showing his hand here – the white woman, probably called Amy, is the likely reader of this book, this bestseller.

The boy dreams of becoming a doctor, of reading and travelling and educating himself: is the white reader meant to question for a second if this is veiled autobiography and then feel guilty for the racist false equivalency? No, surely there’s no chance of knowing cynicism from an Ivy League educated doctor-novelist, right?

I dunno.

The book was…

It was just… so bleak, yet without much psychological insight to explain or justify the behaviour of the characters.

There was no sense as to why these children stuck with the commander until his death, right, because he at no point tried to move beyond the “leading by fear” model, that can’t be suitable for the long term? For longevity, fear has to be subsumed into respect, into care, right? Loyalty needs to come from more than shared guilt, shared shame… or does it? I don’t know. I don’t feel I understand this any better having read this novel about it, tbh…

I dunno, maybe I’m completely wrong here, but it just felt like a novel that wasn’t… i dunno… wasn’t quite excellent enough to be basically the most famous cultural depiction of such a heinous and terrifying recent historical reality.

I dunno. 


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