BEASTS OF NO NATION by Uzodinma Iweala (HarperCollins), 150 pages, $22.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
We've seen enough hard-hitting work from non-writers on the subjects of child sexual abuse and life in prison to learn that subject matter alone can make a book compulsively readable.
But Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts Of No Nation doesn't rely on his theme - the brutal life of a child soldier - to make an impact. He's invented a whole new language and put it in the voice of the young boy Agu, who is wrenched from his family and his books and made to carry a gun in a war in an unnamed country.
Iweala, using the craft of a veteran (unbelievably, this is a first novel), describes the slow process of dehumanization that Agu undergoes. Despite the relentless desensitization, the child continues to retain some aching sensitivities.
The episode in which Agu commits his first murder is stunning; another sequence where Agu can't distinguish between what he's eating and killing also shows rare skill.
Iweala throws us right into the blood, piss and shit of war. Agu, the commandant's sex slave, learns how to rape. Agu, the once happy student, learns to love his gun more than his books. He tries to keep a friendship, but when you're starving, terrified and traumatized, how can friendship have any meaning?
It sounds unbearable, but Iweala's language is so beautiful - rippling with metaphors and an unusually musical cadence thanks to his made-up syntax - that you can't help but stay with it.
And at 150 pages, in a small format, it's just short enough.