The Brilliance of Ishmael Beah

The novel Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah is a brilliant book, not in terms of innovation or style, but in terms of illumination -- and there is no better brilliance for a book, or for an author. In telling the story of the village Imperi and its inhabitants, Beah's writing illuminates and animates: Details of village life, past and present, become clear and vivid; its inhabitants spring into shape (and from the page) body and soul; and the surroundings of the Sierra Leone upcountry do indeed surround: reading his novel made me feel as if I myself was sitting at the feet of the elders, absorbing history and lessons and solace. That kind of storytelling is brilliance, and Ishmael Beah shines.

Beah utilizes both the lyrical verbal traditions of his country -- "God and the gods would wave their hands through the breeze to wipe just a few things off the face of the earth so that it would be able to accommodate the following day" -- and the clarity of simple English -- "the night that followed, the rooster started crowing at 9:00 p.m. for daybreak" -- to tell a story that is at times heartbreaking, and at times inspiring, and at all times, captivating. Beah has no agenda and no grand plan either. He lets his story unfold: a village in Sierra Leone, decimated by war, rebuilds itself through love and determination; then the village is destroyed again, this time by "development" and all the attendance vices of corruption, greed, and dismissal of the past. There are victims and there are villains, but most of all, there are survivors, some by hook or by crook, and some simply by going on.

Without any power in determining the future of the village or of themselves, there would seem to be two choices available to the villagers: resignation to the corruption or joining in with the corruption. But there is a third choice, as Beah has his characters demonstrate: acceptance (so strong and positive that it is more like courage) and optimism that all is not lost, until it is all is over. As one character advises, when a family is near despair, survivors understand that "the world is not ending today, and that you must cheer up if you want to continue living in it."

What is magical and yet so very simple, and also so incredibly strong about the book is how Beah portrays the optimism of his people. Hope is not based on undefined "things will be better tomorrow" delusions (because they probably won't be) but on the firm belief that comfort and even happiness can be found in the here and now: "this wasn't the place for illusions; the reality here was the genuine happiness that came about from the natural magic of standing next to someone and being consumed by the fortitude of his or her humanity." How basic is that? And yet how very wise: wisdom not only for the villagers to live by, but for all of us.

The villagers do want to continue living in the world, even if living in their village is no longer possible. Without any rights or property, expectations or certainties, the villagers still exult in what they do have: the promise that "miracles happen every day" - the miracles of human relationships, the highs of real conversation and connection, and the guidance of stories, passed down through generations, stories that re-root and then re-apply to each new phase of life: "We must live in the radiance of tomorrow, as our ancestors have suggested in their tales. For what is yet to come tomorrow has possibilities, and we must think of it, the simplest glimpse of that possibility of goodness."

Ishmael Beah offers his own tales, stories of incredible resilience -- living in the radiance of tomorrow -- in his wrenching memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, and now in this beautiful novel, Radiance of Tomorrow. I look forward to the possibilities of many more such tales from Beah, and hold tightly to hope for all the very real people who have inspired his brilliance.