If the first novel you write comes out of the child-soldier trauma of your young life and the second is a post-war tale of two friends, might there be a third? Ishmael Beah, who was born in Sierra Leone and participated in the atrocities of “The Blood-Diamonds” civil war, has written a very credible and endearing third book, one that hints at the past civil war but moves on. Beah, a developing young African writer, has an experienced sense for survival street life in contemporary West Africa. Little Family embraces all senses in this tale of gritty and compassionate characters.
At the heart of the story are four street-smart adolescents and a much younger girl, Namsa. Namsa is protectively looked after by her older companions, although she has already developed her own survival skills. Elimane is the philosopher-reader-leader and oldest of the group. Khoudiemata is a girl-becoming-woman, discovering her own beauty and personality outside of the tribe. Hints of the past civil war are in their accommodations, the shell of an aircraft they call home. Camouflaged by the tropical vegetation, it truly provides a haven for the odd little family. Elimane gets himself connected to a man who is playing a much higher-stakes game, thus increasing the family income and their exposure. At about the same time, Khoudiemata explores her own attractiveness by meeting some wealthy young beach partiers. The group of Dickensian ‘urchins’ are reminiscent of Oliver and the Artful Dodger in their ability to make a living from the careless rich. Though the country and city are not given a name, the novel is well-flavored with contemporary West African cultural details.
At the outset, readers might sense a clumsiness or even naivete in the dialogue, but the storyline has enough power to make one overlook this and press on with the narrative. This is an important story for the 21st century, from a storyteller still deeply connected to his Sierra Leonean roots and experiences. (Riverhead Books)