In an unnamed West African nation, Agu is a child soldier. He was conscripted into the guerrilla army when he was found hiding in an abandoned village. Although just a boy, his choice is to become a soldier or to die. So he joins an army without a direction, not understanding its greater purpose, learning to kill simply because the Commandant orders him to do so. He is merely a pawn in a war he doesn't understand and is forced to choose a side he knows nothing about. Although Agu's family is gone, he befriends one of the other boys, Strika, and vies for attention from the brutal Commandant just as if from a benign father. Interspersed with the marching, the physical deprivation, and the atrocities of Agu's new life, are memories of a more peaceful time, life before the war came to his village. Agu was the son of the local school teacher. He was curious, intelligent, and present. These memories of his past are so at odds with his present that it is painful. The Agu of the guerrilla warriors is unquestioning, shut down, and as disconnected from emotion and morality as he can make himself be so as to survive. But what will it mean to survive in such a place and such a state as this? He is indeed one of the beasts of the title.
This is a very slight but powerful novel, heartbreaking in its depiction of this almost unimaginable reality. It is a searing look at the horrors our modern world has created and the stripping of humanity that it allows. Agu tells his own story in first person, present tense, keeping the narrative tension high and immediate throughout the entirety of the story. He narrates in a sing-song pidgin English which takes a little getting used to and is an odd choice of narrative voice given that this is fictional, not a translation, and the author himself is a native English speaker. It does give the reader more of a sense of foreignness than a more traditional grammar would have and perhaps adds to the childishness of Agu's voice as well. The ending is abrupt and almost trance-like but contains wisps of hope amidst ancient-feeling sadness. This is not a book for the faint of heart. It is raw and disturbing. It is unrelenting and graphic. There is no sense of right or good in the conflict and there's brutality on both sides. Agu himself is both victim and perpetrator. Iweala has imagined a terrible, terrible story here, but one that we cannot ignore. I promise that Agu and his fate will haunt you.