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Song for Night
Akashic Books ($12.95)
by Joel Turnipseed
Chris Abani’s Song for Night is so good that it really only deserves a three-word review: “Go Read This!” Or maybe it’s four, adding, “Now.” The story of a fifteen-year-old boy soldier named My Luck—a grimly evocative name whose echo of hope also carries with it a shout of despair—Song recounts his voiceless journey from a land-mine explosion in which his platoon leaves him for dead toward his haunting reunion with them downriver.
My Luck has been silenced by the cold logic of war: his vocal cords were cut by a surgeon so that any screams he might let loose while defusing mines would not give the enemy a clue to their location, but also so that the germ of fear carried by such screams would not infect the other child soldiers. It’s a bold conceit on Abani’s part, and he wields it like a well-honed machete; his chapters open with a slash of poetry, the silent signs of My Luck and his platoon (“Death Is Two Fingers Sliding across the Throat,” “Imagination Is a Forefinger between the Eyes,” “Will Is an Emphatic Finger Pointing”) then descend into the brutal hurt of the speaker’s prose narration.
The voice of this narration is complicated; though only fifteen, My Luck speaks as an adult—but prematurely, even preternaturally, so. Occasionally this voice seems to stumble (as such a voice might), but it usually has the confidence of someone who knows what he has seen and speaks it bravely, mastering complex emotions as tenderly as a wooden spade digging for a mine. In one scene, the boy comes across an empty, bombed-out soccer stadium, and remembers how he and his pals used to play, a love that extended to the making of trophies from rubbish. Now, a different contest has disrupted the turf:
Here and there, patches of red earth spill through like giant puddles of blood. It is as though the very earth is peppered with sores. Scattered as far as I can see are corpses. Like a field of cut corn, cropped and lying in untidy rows, drying slowly in the sun. Further back, behind the bullet-holed stands, the trees straggle in an untidy shade. . . . In this place everything is possible. Here we believe that when a person dies in a sudden and hard way, their spirit wanders confused looking for its body. Confused because they don’t realize they are dead. I know this. Traditionally a shaman would ease such a spirit across to the other world. Now, well, the land is crowded with confused spirits and all the shamans are soldiers.
This is but one scene, and there are many more as ugly and as beautiful. Throughout his journey My Luck remembers with harrowing detail not only the experiences of a brutal war, but those with whom he has fought it—those who, like his girlfriend and fellow soldier Ijeoma, kept some part of his heart alive and warm to love, as well as those who taught him, sometimes at gunpoint, the soul-killing arts of murder and rape and pillage. In all this, he also struggles with the three religions that quarreled among themselves in his youth while simultaneously shaping his own spirit: Christianity, Islam, and Shamanism. Each has its own power, and each leaves its mark on his journey. My Luck literally incorporates them into his story, inscribing scarified crosses into his arm for each of his fallen comrades, etching an X into his skin for each life he has stricken. These then become, when he is worn and tired, a fleshed out rosary to which he prays.
Song for Night is a lyric intercession of the ghosts of poetry on behalf of the prose horrors of war, a hymn to the blurred line between life and death. To the soldier at war, these are not opposites, but a continuum that flows like a river between two banks—as well as, sometimes, around islands of doubt and difference dotting the middle space. The end may come suddenly, or it may linger, but in war it is always a surprise. In his river journey through war and the ugliness of his fate, My Luck provides a constant register of these ambiguities, letting them flow through his soul even as he moves toward their dark fulfillment. In telling his story, Abani proves that he is not only a master of the word but also a loving caretaker of dead spirits: guiding them to their rest, even as he unsettles our own.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008