A week or so before spring break, I received a package from my mom. Inside were a new book and a note explaining that she’d heard about the book when Stephen Colbert interviewed the author, Ishmael Beah, on The Colbert Report.
A few things to know about this author: one, he was born in Sierra Leone, Africa and became a soldier of the civil war there at age 11. Two, he grew up with oral storytelling, enchanted by the tales that the elders in his community recounted around nightly campfires. Three, despite his war-torn childhood, he has a radiant (pun intended) positivity and a refreshing outlook on life.
I recommend reading the author’s note first because it explains Beah’s incorporation of Mende - his first language and the primary dialect spoken in Sierra Leone - into the novel better than I can. In short, he says that due to the language’s figurative nature, it’s difficult to translate into English. But he does a beautiful job of weaving it into his writing; he gives the reader a sense of his homeland’s oral traditions that warms the story with purity, honesty and perspective.
Drawing upon his sub-Saharan upbringing, Beah introduces us to a village in Sierra Leone called Imperi. The civil war that ravaged towns and separated families years ago has ended and people are looking to reunite with loved ones and rebuild their lives. Though devastated by the sight of their pillaged homes, villagers returning to Imperi are hopeful for restoration.
Just as the community has begun to ease back into its old routine, the arrival of a foreign mining company interrupts the villagers’ peaceful recuperation. Dangerous machinery claims the lives of numerous villagers, and the company’s drilling pollutes the village’s water source. White workers kidnap and rape several young women,
Benjamin and Bockarie, the novel’s protagonists, return to their positions as teachers to find themselves under the close surveillance of the corrupt principal, Mr. Fofanah. They struggle to retain their students as tuition becomes increasingly unaffordable for the children’s parents and hunger and fatigue from the long trek to school make them inattentive in class.
As the town’s poverty worsens, many men must seek employment from the drilling company, Betrayed by their own country - whose government has allowed the mining company to drill in their village - the people of Imperi look to each other to cope with the post-war hardships that stunt their recovery. It’s during this violent transition that Beah’s use of Mende enhances not the suffering but the endurance of Imperi’s people. His prose sings and illuminates, especially in his descriptions of the land and the villagers’ benevolence toward one another.
Though Radiance of Tomorrow is not my idea of a page-turner, it is compelling and insightful. The characters’ depth make up for any lag in the plotline, and pushes your mind out of its comfort zone into a journey of loss, guilt and misfortune, from all of which arise acceptance, forgiveness and evolution. The driving force that keeps the story alive is the villagers’ uncompromising confidence in the future.
I think sometimes it’s easy to be reluctant to read a book that brings to light hardships that we never have and perhaps never will encounter. But Beah tells the tale of the villagers’ plight with a universal moral in mind. In his interview, he told Colbert, "Oftentimes people think about peace or happiness in one’s life as the absence of any challenge. That’s not true. Every day in human life you have to face some challenges. Some challenges may be bigger than others. That doesn’t mean that you’re not happy. In the backdrop of all of that, people find time to love each other, to have funny moments in their lives, to raise families and to move on with their lives.”
Though most of us have not experienced the aftershock of war, we all strive for some degree of joy after difficult situations arise. Radiance of Tomorrow reminds readers that the uphill path toward joy is rife with struggles but so is the plateau of contentment at the top of that hill. Beah tells us that life is less about the idealized pursuit of happiness and more about the happiness we forge out of trying circumstances.
Time taken: For loving reading so much, I am the slowest reader I know. That said, this book took me around six days of intermittent reading to complete. For the average reader those same 242 pages shouldn’t take more than three days. But try not to rush through it. Beah’s writing is rich in language and culture, and you may overlook many of the most beautifully articulated passages in the story by skimming the pages for the plot.
Worth reading: If you don’t know Ishmael Beah, you’ll want to get to know him after reading his book. With low expectations of flashy settings or rapidly escalating climaxes and high expectations of unique imagery and vibrant description, you’ll feel, at the very least, content by the end of the novel. If you enjoy it as much as I did, you’ll close the cover with a renewed faith in human endurance, compassion and morality.