Thursday, June 28, 2012

"A Long Way Gone" by Ishmael Beah

With a lot of popular nonfiction, I'm left with a dilemma. Can a book be "good" just because it has a compelling story? Actually, I already talked about this in my review of Unbroken, so I won't rehash it here, but I finished A Long Way Gone with much of the same sentiment.

The book is written by Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone. The book recounts the initial attack on his village, his long exodus from his hometown, his initiation into the army, and his eventual rehabilitation. Though he does later immigrate to the United States, that portion of his tale is not included.

Beah obviously has a compelling and troubling story. The near apathy he had to develop in order to psychologically survive what was happening is horrifying, and even worse is how easy it was for boys like him, in those circumstances, to become merciless killers. Surprisingly, relatively little time is spent on Beah's time in the army (much more time is spent on his ceaseless walking), though I didn't mind being spared at least some of the gory details. Ultimately, Beah's story is one of survival in the face of terror, and his ability to recover and develop compassion after being a soldier is remarkable.

Nonetheless, I had a hard time being absorbed in the story. Beah recounts his tale straightforwardly, point by point (even though the piece isn't entirely chronological), as if he were speaking to a friend. That style probably appeals to some people, but I found it dull and lifeless. Without any sense of style or narrative convention, the pace felt plodding, with no tension or climax. Even Beah's transformation after being released from the army has no emotional charge; his terror or joy are described to, but not felt by, the reader.

Certainly Beah's novel describes an atrocity that some people probably still aren't familiar with. And I think the book's style and structure might appeal especially to weaker readers. I'm sure it can be a book used well, even if it wasn't great for me.

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