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Boyhood lost

Song for Night A Novella Chris Abani Akashic Books: 168 pp., $12.95 paper

September 02, 2007|Irina Reyn | Irina Reyn's first novel, "What Happened to Anna K.," will be published next year.

"IF peace ever comes, I hope it makes us wiser," thinks the voiceless teenage soldier at the heart of Chris Abani's wrenching new novella, "Song for Night." What makes this book a luminous addition to the burgeoning literature on boy soldiers is the way the Nigerian author both undercuts and reinforces such hopeful sentiments.

There may be no redemption in war's devastation, Abani implies, but among the ruins it's still possible to find transcendent moments of beauty.

Following a land-mine explosion, the boy (named "My Luck" by his mother) awakens to find his fellow soldiers gone. The book concerns My Luck's attempt to rejoin his platoon. But the task turns out to be daunting: The path is dangerous, strewn with human debris, enemies and phantoms and severed by rivers shared by dead bodies and playful dolphins.

The farther he travels, the more he recalls about his own role in this unnamed war (presumably the Nigerian civil war, which took place in the late 1960s). He remembers witnessing the murder of his parents; his perilous training as a mine diffuser; the death of his girlfriend, Ijeoma.

He also reveals the reason for his muteness: His throat was slashed by the army doctor, so that inadvertent screams would not distract the platoon from its task of diffusing mines.

If at times My Luck's narration has a detached quality (Ijeoma was "lacerated by shrapnel, body parts scattered in a way that cannot be explained or described"), it is a reminder of the futility of translating horror into language.

As his previous work -- a novella and three novels (including the Hemingway/PEN Award-winning "GraceLand") and several poetry collections -- demonstrates, Abani is fascinated by the ways in which poetry and prose intersect. Like the earlier novella, "Becoming Abigail," "Song for Night" has the feel of a prose poem, with its primary focus on imagery (the consumption of fish, the dripping of water, the feverish repetition of dreams) and its spare, musical language. The lyrical intensity of the writing perfectly suits the material.

When it becomes clear that our narrator is moving in two parallel landscapes -- a linear, physical space as well as the scrambled terrain of memory -- the reader comes to understand the complexity of My Luck's goal. After participating in the atrocities of war, the reunion with his platoon promises to provide crucial order among senseless chaos.

But how can a person who has killed and raped still find himself overwhelmed by the simple joy of being alive, the pleasure of a good meal, the feeling of warm sun on his face? "[E]ven with the knowledge that there are some sins too big for even God to forgive," My Luck thinks, "every night my sky is still full of stars; a wonderful song for night."

"Song for Night" is a devastating portrait of a boy holding onto the shreds of his innocence during a war that deliberately, remorselessly works to yank it away. *

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