Booked Up

A First Novel Tries to Capture a Continent

Ishmael Beah’s Radiance of Tomorrow shines a light on the problems and potential of Africa.

By - Feb 21st, 2014 01:32 pm

If you remember Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town from high school, you may recall the deep regret the characters feel as their beloved town creeps into the modern world. Imagine the aftermath of a bloody civil war, place the town in Africa, and you’ll have a small taste of this affecting first novel by Ishmael Beah. Radiance of Tomorrow is both homage to village life in Sierra Leone and a warning of the dangers of post-colonial industrial occupation.

Radiance of Tomorrow

Radiance of Tomorrow

Ishmael Beah is best known for his shattering autobiography, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (2007). His recounting of the horrors and brutality of war through a child soldier’s eyes is both unimaginable and inspiring at the same time. Much the same thing can be said of Radiance of Tomorrow. The title is simultaneously ironic and aspirational for the villagers of Imperi.

The burned-out town that Beah describes is a shell of its pre-war self. But slowly, its former inhabitants and new refugees start to revive it. If you have ever wondered how people can recover after a catastrophe, you will find many answers in this poetic account of struggle and suffering. While it is not always a pleasant story, it holds many lessons about the resilience and survival instincts shared by all humans.

Beah writes in his introduction that he has tried to find English equivalents for his native Mende. It is because of this process of self-translation that the novel has such beautiful descriptions and lilting dialogue. The characters sometimes seem like town “types,” but they have real spirit and a universal appeal that speaks truth across borders.

The microcosm of Imperi shines light on the seemingly insurmountable problems that plague much of the African continent. Following the changing fortunes of the village and the main character, Bockarie, we see war, military dictatorship, and the ravages of industrial oppression. Despite the daunting challenges, the town’s inhabitants and Bockarie work hard to survive and even thrive.

Beah is following in the tradition of great African writers like Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, Alan Paton, and the Nobel Prize Laureates, Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka. They have created a tradition that incorporates local tradition and lore into the modern world of violence and corruption. This tension infuses every page of Radiance of Tomorrow. The old ways embody values that are hard to hold on to when confronted with the disintegration of society’s fabric. This conflict is one that Beah has participated in all his life and his novel gives witness to this struggle.

Radiance of Tomorrow often reads like a fable, but whatever its weaknesses in character development and plot, it succeeds in transporting us to a world that we might otherwise miss. We begin to understand issues that often defy explanation in the media. Humanizing the problems of a continent seems difficult, but it is the work of artists to try. With this powerful book, Ishmael Beah proves that he is one of them. Remember his name and look for his future in the “radiance of tomorrow.”

Upcoming area Book Events:

Monday, February 24 (7:00 PM): Gina Frangello, author of “A Life in Men” at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Tuesday, February 25 (7:00 PM): Elizabeth Eulberg, author of “Better Off Friends” at Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, February 26 (7:00 PM): Michio Kaku, author of “The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind” at Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, February 26 (5:45-6:45 PM or 6:45-7:45 PM): Wauwatosa All-City Read Event – Parent/Child Discussions of “Hollow Earth” by Carole E. Barrowman at The Little Read Book, 7603 W. State St., Wauwatosa. Call (414) 774-2665 to register.

Thursday, February 27 (7:00 PM): Paul Geenan, author of “Civil Rights Activism in Milwaukee: South Side Struggles in the Sixties and Seventies” at Boswell Book Company.

Thursday, February 27 (7:00 PM): Nicholas Lampert, author of “A People’s Art History of the United States” in conversation with Dan S. Wang at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. (414) 263-5001

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at  And good reading!


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