Now almost 40 years old, Beah has published his second deeply affecting novel, “Little Family.” Although set in an unnamed African nation, the story speaks to the plight of extremely poor people in all countries riddled with corruption and violence. Distressingly, the experiences of Beah’s characters are the experiences of the powerless everywhere.
Inspired by his extensive travels and interviews, Beah has imagined a group of five homeless orphans living together on the edge of a bustling city. As victims of abuse or calamity, they care for each other gently, warding off memories of better — and worse — times. “They had an unspoken understanding not to press one another about the past and its pain,” Beah writes, “but to keep trying to live in the present, offering silent understanding and respect.”
Much is silent and unspoken in this subtle novel about people we rarely hear from. Beah’s narration rests lightly across these lives, suggesting only the outlines of their ruined childhoods. Even the brief opening of “Little Family” — a glancing vision of a boy fading into tall grass — suggests the nature of these wary transients.
Given the necessity of remaining invisible, the five kids in “Little Family” have taken refuge in an abandoned airplane camouflaged by a maze of vegetation. The oldest boy, a bookish 20-year-old named Elimane, acts as their de facto leader. But there are no formalized lines of command. Knit together by love rather than by blood or authority, they form a natural commune in which everything is shared equally.
Tender as this is, Beah has no interest in romanticizing their little family. He means only to insist on their humanity, which the upper classes so aggressively deny. The novel conveys the precariousness of their position with shocking clarity: Every day is a struggle for food and security for these kids whom nobody wants.
What endows the novel with such stirring energy is the way Beah focuses on their remarkable skills. To work the streets as grifters, shoplifters and pickpockets, the five members of this family must be extraordinarily observant and disciplined. Without any formal schooling, they are psychologists, sociologists and economists — tirelessly attuned to the shifts in a shopkeeper’s voice, a guard’s eyes or a crowd’s murmurings.
Acutely aware of each other without ever giving any indication of being together, they utilize a complex system of hand signals, whistles and glances. As day breaks, they take their positions with military discipline. In one fascinating chapter, Beah describes the group spreading out to pilfer from a nearby market with grace and coordination that’s somewhere between the Bolshoi Ballet and the Liverpool soccer team. It’s a nerve-racking, strangely beautiful maneuver to behold.
Early in the novel, the two elder members develop their own special projects that require them to exchange the security of invisibility for the potential power of being seen. Elimane attracts the attention of a political fixer who quickly recognizes the young man’s dexterity and begins using him for mysterious black ops. But Beah cleverly constructs these scenes of intrigue so that we never know any more details than Elimane, who participates with an uneasy sense that he’s furthering the very corruption that oppresses him and his family.
Meanwhile, Khoudi, the elder girl in the group, emerges as the novel’s central character. One day she’s noticed by a group of wealthy students who have no idea she’s homeless; they mistake her deep apprehension for radical chic. Swept up into their glamorous social scene, Khoudi enters a realm of opulence funded by endemic state fraud. Their clothes, cars and homes are astounding, but it’s not just the expensive possessions that impress Khoudi; it’s their total lack of fear. “Oh, to be able to give in to such relaxation,” Khoudi fantasizes. “She wanted to learn how to be like them: the way they laughed and swung their bodies here and there, how they stared at boys and men and captivated them.”
Funded by despotism, these glittery folks are easy objects of disgust. But Beah’s approach is more nuanced, and even Khoudi, who suffers so much under this system, never hates her oblivious new friends. She understands that they are not evil people, per se. It’s just that their lives have been designed to make them sophisticated about the world and ignorant about their countrymen. Moving between these two extremes, Khoudi offers a particularly sensitive critique of the naivete enjoyed only by “those to whom life has been consistently good.”
“Little Family” is an empathy-expanding story without the heavy gears of polemical fiction. In a sense, Beah has written an African social novel that complements earlier novels by Dickens and Twain, but he conveys his unsettling assessment with a more delicate balance of tenderness and dread. Elimane, Khoudi and the other members of their little family have such a clear-eyed sense of their place as disposable members of society. To hear their story should make our confirmed blindness a little harder to maintain.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Ishmael Beah
Riverhead. 262 pp. $27