Blake Wilson, editorial assistant Uzodinma Iweala's novella Beasts of No Nation is the best debut fiction I've read in a long time. Narrated by a boy kidnapped into child-soldiering in a West African civil war, it is an unsparing chronicle of his transformation from model student to rapist and killer. I've read so much journalism about the brutality of life in parts of Africa, but the huge distance between that reality and my own experience always made it difficult to think of the genocides and child armies as much more than social and political problems. This book closes that gap and makes those tragedies immediate. The passages describing battle and murder are excruciating, but more devastating is the cumulative picture of a life without family, morality, or culture, in a place without any functioning society, where the only stimulus and point of existence is animal violence. It is amazing to me that anyone could bear this. But Iweala has imagined a convincing character that did bear it and retained his humanity. This is no small thing for any writer to do, and from a 22-year-old just out of Harvard, it is a breathtaking accomplishment.
And keep in mind books published this year by Slate staffers: The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, by David Plotz; The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate, by Marjorie Williams and edited by Timothy Noah; and What the Dog Did: Tales from a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner, by Emily Yoffe. Click here to see a complete list of recent books by Slatesters.
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