Looking to expand my reading horizons, I chanced upon Ishmael Beah’s Radiance of Tomorrow while having a field day on the Google Play store. I love books of all stripes, and I won’t refuse to read a book based on things like race, or religion, or sexuality. Yet, when I examined my book collection, I realized I needed more diverse narratives and stories. Whoever said variety was the spice of life was clearly talking about books. Having read and loved Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, I jumped into the Beah’s novel.
Radiance of Tomorrow details life in the rural Sierra Leonean town of Imperi as it tries to rebuild itself from the ashes of a war and genocide the likes of which we’ve all seen on news reports over the last 20 years. As the townsfolk return; first two highly respected village elders, and then families and people, familiar and unfamiliar, they start to create their new normal, while being weary of the past.
Unfortunately, normal also brings new problems. While they aren’t running from violent warlords, and sadistic child soldiers–a former child soldier actually comes to live in Imperi in an effort to make things right–they must navigate a new state of affairs that include corruption, theft, inequality, murder, cover-ups, polution, and scarce resources. Still, the villagers find a kind of peace in just being alive, especially after having lost so many of their families, friends, and neighbors to hellish brutality.
It may be in a rural African town, but Beah is able to paint a picture of a place that was worth visiting or spending the day exploring. Despite growing up in a Panamanian suburb, I felt at home in so many ways reading Beah’s colorful prose. The tight knit community, the elders and their stories, the children and their hopefulness, their parents (both biological and foster) who, despite trials and tribulations, still manage to enrich their community while looking out for each other.
Radiance of Tomorrow covers all the townspeople’s stories really well, but it focuses primarily on Benjamin and Bockarie, two friends who are both teachers at the local school and their observations of Imperi’s changing environment. We see how Imperi grows from the ashes of death and decay, only to be decimated by a new peril that is just as deadly and indifferent as the guerrillas they had to run from in the past.
Both are family men dealing with scarce resources, but they manage to see all the town’s children as their own and heavily invest in their education, even when it seems all odds are against them. They want to give their students a chance at something better, and they are committed to this goal when a foreign mining company sets up shop near the town.
As the mining company starts to affect the villagers’ daily lives, Benjamin and Bockarie, like many of their neighbors, are forced to make some really tough choices that will have resounding effects. I found myself wondering what I would do in that situation despite being someone with super strong convictions. That’s how thought-provoking this novel is.
Beah uses rich, imaginative language that arouses the reader’s senses. If I had to describe Radiance of Tomorrow, I would describe it as a feeling, the one you might have on a beautiful summer’s day languishing in the sun by the pool until the rain rolls in. There are very good times in Imperi, but there are also very bad times in Imperi, and Beah forces readers to really examine what is going on a world away.
The only issue I have is the story going from bad to worse to maddening and sad. Trust me, by the end there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but it seemed like Beah was almost fearful of leaving some misfortune based on current events out of the book. Basically, I wanted to throw in the towel for the characters in the book. The amount of adversity they eventually had to deal with seemed almost insurmountable.
I guess, I felt guilty in a way. There’s so much I take for granted that another woman just like me half a world away would kill to have. Still, don’t let this deter you from reading the book, because it would be a tremendous disservice, and kind of cowardly. I’m just being truthful. Good books are supposed to elicit a range of emotions from the reader. Beah’s novel does just that, and then some.
I wish I could tell you Radiance of Tomorrow ends with a happy ending. I can’t really say. What it does, however, is end on a hopeful ending in anticipation of better things to come.