Monday, July 02, 2007

BOOKS: A Long Way Gone

Good writing is the craft of choosing just the right words, arranging them thoughtfully to form sentences and paragraphs, such that an idea or an image is planted in the mind of the reader, with the intended shades of feeling and nuances of meaning that the author intended. Great writing starts from there and goes further. In the form of a memoir, it can create a life experience nearly as vivid as if the reader had lived it himself, giving the reader insight into a life very different from his own, perhaps one he could scarcely have imagined. And great writing does this with a poetry such that every experience, no matter how mundane or how horrific, has a beauty about its description. I recently encountered such a memoir in the remarkable A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. It is the story of an innocent young boy whose life was changed precipitously when his West African village was destroyed by rebels, and he was forced to become a wanderer in the jungle and eventually a child soldier in a brutal civil war. He describes the unimagineable horrors of his life in a way that makes them completely comprehensible and frighteningly real. His voice is so genuine, his innocence at the start so true, that you experience his fright, confusion, and disbelief of the surreal -- and yet all too real -- ordeal through his 13-year-old eyes and heart. And by the end, you actually understand the incomprehensible: how a good-hearted boy could be mutated into a heartless warrior, and ultimately redeemed (and why the redemption is harder than the mutation). This amazing story is told with such skill and such poetry that I kept coming back to the same thought: this young writer is another Hemingway. Beah describes the taste of food, his first time ever seeing snow, and watching a friend be shot to death beside him, all with beauty, equanimity, and a scalpel-sharp clarity, just as Hemingway would have done. I heartily recommend this book, and I look forward to other great things that will surely come from this remarkable young writer.

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