Author Ismail Beah's tale of hope after war in Sierra Leone in the book Radiance of Tomorrow has Abby Wong abandoning a party.
I attended a party recently, a gathering with old friends I had not seen for a long time. It was exciting; and I needed decent, stimulating conversation. And having lived so quietly and reclusively for a while, I thought it was best to get out of the house.
My host had always been gracious and her house, a fortress, was warm and comfortable. Right in the middle of it were the friends. It was good to see them again. A light shade of grey has violated the handsome and beautiful faces of a couple. Have they aged so fast or I have been away from the circle far too long? The other gentleman had just moved to Sydney from Kuala Lumpur, and he asked about Book Nook. One topic after another, and I found myself merrily enjoying the company and the conversation. It was peaceful and heart-lightening. None of the cacophony I was accustomed to or unaccustomed to, depending on how one sees it.
Later, however, I drifted again; the urge to go home grew stronger. The noise became louder as more people arrived. The conversation changed course, as did the tone – from chuckling to laughing out loud to shrilling. My head began to buzz, some bits of it haywire. Soon, I became preoccupied with my own thoughts, thinking about Africa. My eyes kept glancing at the clock, my mind counting the minutes.
An hour later I was out. In an awkward manner that made it clear I was fleeing, I bid adieu to my friends. Strange it may seem, and crazy though I might have sounded, I felt peaceful again out in the chilly air and the feeling was an alleviation of a sort.
On the drive back, I longed for a solitary moment in my home, so as soon as I entered, long past midnight, I tiptoed into the bathroom to look for the cause of my African preoccupation: Ishmael Beah’s Radiance Of Tomorrow. I plonked down into my warm bed, tilted the book towards the dim and comforting light and read Beah’s fictitious recounting of Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s. The cosiness provided immense comfort, and as I eased into a story so beautifully written, I felt happy.
Occupying a south-west corner of Africa, Sierra Leone is a small country. It is a war-torn place most people have not heard about, and most are not familiar with its 11-year civil war or interested in the horrifying tales of people engulfed in the bloody strife. Young children were captured and forced to become combatants carrying guns heavier than their bodies; girls, though also made to carry weapons, mended houses and were constantly raped by men of a brutal guerrilla army styling itself as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). But the book is not about exodus. If it was, it would not be as calming as I have claimed it to be. It is about homecoming, about hope.
What you fall for when picking up the book is Beah’s sincere and stylistically written introduction. So exquisite is the language that you will be instantly mesmerised, knowing what is promised will be delivered. Beah promised to bring back to life some of the things destroyed in the war. And so he does, as he writes about the hope of rebuilding homes burnt down, of rekindling a connection with the land from which his characters fled.
“My feet touched this land on the day that gave birth to this one. And I walked the path, as that is the way in my heart,” a woman murmurs as she sorts human remains, as one would sort kindling, in hopes of finding some of her kin.
As more people return, as if summoned by their own yearning to come back, life begins to emerge, and so does hope. The mango trees sway once again, rivers flow, coffee brews, and children dress themselves in school uniforms.
I could hear the laughter, long drowned out by machine guns and wails, feel the radiance of people anchoring themselves once again in the land of their birth, see the billowing of smoke from cook fires above newly-restored huts, taste the sweetness of simple joy, and touch the sand most likely coalesced with flakes of weathered human bones.
So powerful are Beah’s descriptions and so moved was I in the wee hours of the night that, as I looked around me – my children soundly sleeping and everything orderly – I felt immense gratitude.
The gentle lyricism of the book eventually lulled me to sleep, and in my dream, I saw my friends again. Though the company they offered was not reciprocated with the same enthusiasm from my end, I did appreciate their efforts to take me back into their circle. It is the rootedness that brought us back together that night, though I chose to rush home to be embraced once again by the tranquillity and quietness that I never fail to find through books.