I'm sorry, I'm so very sorry for what I am about to do. It seems unbelievably curmudgeonly of me to judge this book harshly given its subject matter. But I can't let the deep empathy I feel for this former Sierra Leonean child soldier cloud my judgement of his memoir. I give him five stars - more! - for his courage, his honesty and the remarkable work he is doing to shed light on the life of child soldiers in Sierra Leone and elsewhere; to raise consciousness and motivate political action to put a stop to the brutality and corruption of the regimes that use them.
But, this is about the book--did the book work, did the book move me as it had the immense potential to do, did it put me into his world and let me share his trauma and pain at a visceral level - making me angry, sad, guilty, moved to action? And the answer to all of that is, not really.
It had three major flaws (really, I blame the editor):
1. The lead-up to Beah's kidnapping into the army lacked the kind of rich detail that made the loss of that life resonate throughout the rest of the story. (for a contrast, see Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes aka Someone Knows My Name).
2. The time spent in the army -- the drugs, the brutality of the 'training', the weeks-long missions in the bush, fuelled only by drugs and fear, the orgies of killing, raping and looting -- all that we know happens, we didn't see here. Beah's time in the army was the shortest part of this book. For him, emotionally and psychologically, it's completely understandable--even if he wanted to (unlikely) he probably can't
--because of the drugs and trauma--even remember. It's a terrible thing, but this book needed him to.
3. The book ended abruptly with a major piece of the story left hanging -- I guess I can't tell you what. So often, books - especially memoirs - inherently have a built-in problem with the end. We always know the end -- at least in broad strokes, but you still have to take us there, and take us to a point that it makes sense to stop even though obviously, if you're writing it, the story didn't stop. In this case, Beah stopped about two crucial plot points before he should have.
What was most effective for me was the rehabilitation section of the story. This is where Beah's detached, almost fugue-like point-of-view seemed to work so well. It's also where his memories of what he experienced were set up in stark relief to the difficulty of his recovery -- that contrast, and the level of detail that then emerged, made for compelling reading. In fact, I'm upping from 2 to 3 stars solely based on the redemption the rehabilitation segment offers the story. It made up - to some extent - for flaws 1 and 2. Maybe the entire story should have been set during the rehabilitation period, with flash forwards and flashbacks?
Because of some work I am doing right now for an organization working in the field of international development and poverty reduction, I am particularly interested in how to tell these kinds of stories: how do you avoid exploitation while retaining the emotional power of the story to motivate readers to empathy and action? What form works? What level of detail? What tone and POV?
Dave Eggers wrote a jacket blurb (as did Jon Stewart) -- and this book shows me a little why Eggers' approach, as in What Is The What
(at its heart, a remarkably similar journey) and in Zeitoun
-- works so well, where this one didn't. It takes a deft writer to manage these literary choices: it's about how
the story is told as much or even more than what the story is
Maybe that's just me -- maybe I'm asking a memoir to use fictional devices and story-telling techniques and maybe that's just not fair. Maybe that's why Eggers is the epitome for me, because he is able to tread that line perfectly (imho, and brings, too, the journalist's eye to the story).
What do you think? Should memoirs be held to the same standards as fiction in terms of plot, pacing, tone, characterization, etc.? All or some of these? Or is there a different set of standards that need to be applied, a different way to experience them?