The King's Rifle by Biyi Bandele, Harper Collins, 2007.
This is a unique coming of age tale about Faratibi/Ali Banana, a 13 year old boy from Nigeria who lies about his age in order to join the army.
However, he has not joined just any segment of the army. Set during World War II, Banana has joined the 'Chindits' of the British Army, fighting the Japanese in Burma. The 'Chindits' are a "long range penetration group trained to operate deep behind Japanese lines."
Banana's group is lead by Sergeant or 'Samanja' Damisa, himself only twenty-six years old. His team is comprised of soldiers from different West African groups, speaking a variety of dialects. Coupled with the fact that characters are alternately called by their real names or nicknames, it is easy for the reader to lose track of all of the members of the group.
At times the story is humorous. When the reader first meets Banana, he is eager to join the fighting but is delayed with a bout of chicken pox. He yells at the officers that they are making him fat because every time he asks them when he can rejoin his battalion, they send him away to the canteen. Yet once he joins the war and begins to fight the Japanese, he quickly becomes childlike. His character changes completely and his bravado disappears.
The characters are endearing, but the the story ends before you really get to know them. It is a coming of age tale, but one that is greatly accelerated due to the harsh realities of war. The group is quickly plagued by sickness, injuries, death, disease and insanity. At one point they have to walk seventeen miles carrying packs weighing over thirty kilograms. The story is not gruesome or gratuitous, but in no way does it glamorize war. In the end, it is a quick story and one that is worth reading for lines such as this:
"They all felt grateful to be inside the trenches, In this frightening place called Burma, to be lying huddled in a stinking hole in the ground on a bad that looked like a coffin felt just like being inside a palace."
Biyi Bandele was born in Nigeria and was inspired to write this story by his father, who was a veteran of the Burma campaign.