Reviewer: Troy Onyango
Title: Boy, Interrupted
Author: Saah Millimono
Publisher: Kwani? Trust
Year of Publication: 2014
For a long time this book has been on my To Be Read pile of books, untouched. Let’s admit it, African literature has been flooded with stories that are categorized as either ‘war porn’ or ‘poverty porn’. Be damned if it’s both. From the critically acclaimed Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to the recently adapted as a movie Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala and even to the Caine Prize winning stories. In fact, Reviewer and Literary critic Ikhide R. Ikheloa has criticized the fact that award winning stories (Caine) and acclaimed African literature generally seems to veer towards war porn and poverty porn. So when I heard that Boy, Interrupted was a story about war and poverty, I sidelined it. Until last week when in one sitting I read the 150-page book.
Saah Millimono’s debut novel (1st Runners-up Kwani? Manuscript Prize after Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi) is really not a story of war but a story of love and courage. An undying love set in the background of a civil war. It is a commendable work of historical fiction, meticulously captured through Tarnue (the protagonist) who narrates his ordeal taking us through the topography of a country embroiled in a Civil war.
“While both love and war stand out in this 150-page novel, only love is a result of deliberate actions and a show of passion by the two main characters, Tarnue and Kou. War is an interruption.”
– Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigere
The poignant story, set between 1988 and 2004, starts just before the civil war and this is where we get to know Tarnue’s first interruption. His everyday-life of playing with his mates is cut short when he is sent to live with his uncle and cruel wife who makes him to sell bread. The story is set in motion and from this point the writer painstakingly takes us through Tarnue’s encounters with interruptions; one being the war which separates him from his young love Kou.
The author paints grim the situation and beautifully draws you to the book with sentences like “The house had a mournful look, like Sister Cecilia” Pg. 132.
As the war ravages, the morality of the character Tarnue moves through an arc and he becomes a ferocious child soldier who is now more comfortable to take people and “do his/her work”.
“I had ceased to be afraid. Death to me was something that you could do nothing about, especially if you had killed other people so easily and so often that life had ceased to have any meaning.” Pg. 120
The horrors of war are painted vividly in this book in a melancholic way and neatly-penned paragraphs like this leave you crying alongside the protagonist:
“The rebels led me to an enclosure they had built with hickory stakes. Leaving my elbows bound tight together, they pushed me inside and immediately I cried out in pain from the broken bottles strewn about the dirt floor. So dwarfed a place it was that the only space and height possible was in a sitting, with your knees drawn up. Looking up, I could see that the sticks overhead were embedded with six-inch nails, the edges pointing downwards, so that it was possible to rise no more than a few inches from the floor. I tried to clear a space to sit, but realized that the shards of glass were stuck deep into the ground. I sat on a human skull in the corner, trying to ignore the jagged edges of glass piercing through the pain.” Pg. 148
You have to give a thumbs up to the author for his simplistic use of words to invoke emotion.
Boy, Interrupted is not limited to Liberia in its narration of the civil war and the character interacts with other nationalities such as Nigerians (Read Captain Okonkwo) and Sierra Leoneans who have come into the country as part of the peace-keeping missions. The collective effort to restore peace is marred by several issues some of which continue to reflect even in today’s peace-keeping missions within Africa.
This is not the average cliché ‘war porn’ peddled out there. It is a worthy read and while the writing is simplistic nature, the emotions captured between the lines compensate for it.