Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 1, 2009

Song for Night, by Chris Abani

Song for NightEvery now and again I start a book and I know straight away that it’s going to distress me to continue reading it.  It was like this with Gil Courtemanche’s Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, and with Andre Brink’s The Other Side of Silence: they were harrowing stories that still haunt me because I know that these novels are based on the horror of real life experiences.  Ghastly as they are, I feel compelled to continue reading because I feel that we who are enjoying lives of safety and security have a responsibility to know about those who do not.  We need to know so that we can use any power that we have to try and help.   It may only mean that we are supportive of a generous refugee policy, or that we donate to international campaigns to stamp out the atrocity, or that we pressure our own politicians to care about it and make a fuss in the United Nations.  We are not altogether powerless; I do not want to be ignorant about how others live because such ignorance breeds indifference.  Even though I may find the reading deeply distressing,

So it is with Song for Night by Chris Abani.  It is the tale of a West African boy soldier who has led an appalling life in a mine-defusing unit.  At the age of twelve he joined the rebel army in one of those senseless wars which have been destroying Africa for decades, and now aged 15 he has lost his childhood and his innocence.  He has learned to hate, to rape and to kill, and to get revenge in swift and horrific ways.

He has no voice, for all the members of the mine-defusing unit have had their vocal chords cut so that they cannot scream when they are blown up.  The children have developed a sign language to communicate with each other, and each chapter begins a description of the sign.  ‘Light’ is ‘jazz hands and a smile’;town’ is ‘hands making boxes in the air’ and ‘love’ is a ‘backhanded stroke to the cheek’.  Whenever the unit rapes the women of a village they have attacked, the boy makes love with his girlfriend Ijeoma, , ‘to make sure that amongst all the horror, there was still love.  That it wouldn’t die here, in this place‘ (p66) but now his girlfriend has been blown up in an explosion and he is alone, searching for his platoon.

As he makes his way through the bush, he traces his memories using his ‘Braille cemetery’.  The sign for ‘memory‘ is ‘a pattern cut into an arm’, and he records on his left arm, a ‘cross, one for every loved one lost in this war, though there are a couple from before the war.’ (p20).  There are 20 of these crosses now, eighteen of them commemorating the killing of friends or relatives.  Two were strangers that he had shot by accident.  This is a human toll we cannot imagine, that would crush the spirit of most of us, and this boy is only 15.

On his right forearm, there are six crosses carved there: ‘one for each person that [he] enjoyed killing’.  Macabre as this is, it’s a testament to the crude morality this child has developed.  These killings that he enjoyed were those of his stepfather, who abused his mother; an old woman cannibalising a baby; and ‘John Wayne’ the officer who trained them, instigated their throat cutting and was ‘determined to turn [them] into animals’ (p21).

Despite the horror of events, a fragile kind of hope emerges as the boy makes his final journey along a river, surrounded by ghosts and spirits.  ‘Home’ is a ‘palm fisted to the heart’ and for once magical realism is like a balm to an anguished spirit. ‘Mother’, [he] says, and [his] voice has returned. (p146)

Author: Chris Abani
Title: Song for Night
Publisher: Scribe, 2009
ISBN: 9781921372094
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

Fishpond: Song for Night


  1. […] pessimism of this purported novel of middle-class disenchantment depressed me in a way that the Song for Night or Waiting for an Angel did not, despite their horrific subject […]


  2. […] critical of its corrupt post-colonial regimes and their flaws, some of it really harrowing as in Song for Night by Chris Abani, and sometimes masking a serious issue with a light-hearted tone, as in Adaobi […]


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