Review: Song For Night by Chris Abani

Author: Chris Abani

Published: May 9, 2016 – U.K. (Originally 2007 – U.S.)

Rating: 4 Stars

Literary Fiction (Novella) | 160 pages |Published by Saqi Books

 As a reader, I believe one of my duties is to experience the narratives of people from all over the world and to expose myself to the lived experiences of as many cultures as possible. Sometimes, this means I get to witness people’s love, joy, and adventures. Those stories are wonderful and we love to read and be enriched by them. But our world is also full of nightmares and horrors that far too many people live and encounter on a daily basis. We may choose to go about our daily lives not thinking about such unpleasant matters, but turning a blind eye to people’s suffering means we are devaluing that suffering for the sake of preserving our own comfort.

We are bombarded with gruesome headlines and heartbreaking stories every day, so it has become increasingly easier to ignore other people’s plight. We all do this and I am no exception. That is why fiction that is honest and reflective of our world’s complex, flawed, and painful history is so important for society in general. 

Song For Night by Chris AbaniChris Abani’s Song For Night is a shining example of the kind of fiction the world needs. The narrative is fairly slim, as it is a novella, but it is powerful nonetheless. It follows 15 year-old My Luck, who is caught in the midst of an unnamed civil war in West Africa that is reminiscent of the Biafran War of 1967-1970. But the focus is not politics; rather the story explores My Luck’s spiritual and physical journey for “home,” peace, and the boy he once was before war warped his humanity. 

The entire story is narrated in My Luck’s voice, though he opens the novella with the line “What you hear is not my voice.” What he means is that he is mute and cannot speak. He wasn’t born mute, but had to undergo the standard procedure for all mine defusers in his platoon — to have his vocal chords severed so that he would be unable to scream if he set off a mine. This way he wouldn’t warn the enemy or distract his fellow soldiers. 

Song For Night is one of the bleakest stories I have ever read. There is very little room for hope and happiness, though My Luck tries to find such moments wherever he can. For example, another mine desufer, Ijeoma, offers him love and comfort when everything around them is a living hell. If only for a moment. Sometimes all he can do is find beauty in a starry night.

I have killed many people during the last three years. Half of those were innocent, half of those were unarmed, — and some of those killings have even been a pleasure. But even with all this, even with the knowledge that there are some sins too big for even God to forgive, every night my sky is still full of stars; a wonderful song for night.

Do not expect an easily delineated morality. It is up to the reader to decide if My Luck is deserving of our sympathy. But after hearing this brave and intelligent boy tell his story, it is difficult not to yearn and mourn with him. I’m not comfortable passing judgment on people caught in such horrendous circumstances, but what I can do is lend my ear, empathize, and magnify their voices and stories in any way I can so that their lives and experiences are not forgotten.

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher, Saqi Books, in exchange for an honest review. 

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16 thoughts on “Review: Song For Night by Chris Abani

  1. I feel like my heart is in my throat just from reading your review of this bleak, but important book.

    I love the sense of duty you have as a reader: “to experience the narratives of people from all over the world and to expose [yourself] to the lived experiences of as many cultures as possible.” It’s disturbing that mainstream publications rarely lift up the voices of underrepresented individuals. For some people (especially children living in communities plagued by housing segregation), their only exposure to diversity will come from the books they read and other media.

    1. I was one of those children who lived in segregated housing. My natural love for reading is one of the things that allowed me to escape the suffocating environment.

      I am one of the lucky ones, but there are countless other children who are still trapped in that environment. It breaks my heart just to think about how many opportunities for learning and enrichment are missed by living in lower-income communities.

  2. Great review! Song for Night sounds like a powerful read. Like you, I read in order to expose myself to the experiences of as many cultures as I can. I’ve always been intrigued by other cultures, and I feel that literature should reflect this diversity of experience and what humans are capable of. I do enjoy reading fiction, but I think literature is much more powerful when it gives voice to those that have been muted.
    Have you read Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden? That is a harrowing read!

    1. It’s great to see other readers want to learn more about the world’s cultures through literature.

      No, I hadn’t even heard of it. But I just looked it up and I must read it. I’ve wanted to read more stories, fictional or not, set in North Korea. It’s one of the strangest, most unknowable places in the world. Any insight into what goes on in that eerie place is so important and necessary. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I will be sure to read it in 2016.

      1. Definitely! It’s so so depressing but I learnt so much about North Korea and the prison camps. I’d also recommend In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park, though the author had a completely different experience in North Korea to Shin Dong-hyuk in Escape from Camp 14. But both books are incredibly informative.

  3. This sounds like a book I should be reading. Thanks for writing about it!
    Also, characters with questionable morality are always intriguing…

  4. I am struck by your earnestness and care for learning about people from different backgrounds, cultures, experiences. And also how you do not shy away from what may be difficult or bleak.

    Honestly my biggest pet peeve with book reviews is when someone rates a story poorly because it was too ‘depressing’. Well, heck, life can be stifling and awful and downright unfair, and it’s usually a function of the body and position you were born in. So I don’t want to hear about how a book about a plausible situation is a blight in someone’s bubble of blissful ignorance.

    Kudos to you for keeping this issue front and center with your blog. If everyone was reading these kinds of books, my feeling is we’d be much more tolerant and understanding of our worldly companions.

    As always, impressed.

    1. I never balk at controversial topics or issues (in literature). They actually make me want to read the work more.

      Yeah, it annoys me too when a book is penalized for being honest about how terrible and depressing life can be. I would never presume to do such a thing and I’m glad you agree as well.

      Thank you for the kind words.

  5. Wow, that first sentence. And your introduction. On point. Such an intriguing narration. This book definitely sounds like it deserves to be read! Glad to hear you enjoyed it. Great review again buddy! 😉

    – Lashaan

  6. Oh so glad you reviewed this one, I have to put this on the tbr! I’m glad there are people like you who despite having had to fight more for the comfort of turning a blind eye instead open their eyes wide!! I try to learn about these horrors through literature, too, and it is such an easy way for many people in my society, but I’m often sad how people close off all areas toward this knowledge and empathy.
    Love that this book does not offer a simple morality. I hope my library acquires this book!

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