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by Neil Bissoondath. Bloomsbury USA: New York. August 2006. $24.95. 349 pages.

To call Neil Bissoondath’s The Unyielding Clamor of the Night a typical story about terrorism and war would not be a fair assessment. It is anything but typical in its intent and approach. Neither a thriller nor a mystery, the story is a panorama of the effects of politics and war on the innocent. There is little action aside from several decidedly unpleasant and distasteful events. And the question must be asked, is anyone innocent?

Twenty-one-year-old Arun rejects his family’s wealth and takes his northern idealism to the poverty-stricken, war-ravaged south of his unnamed Southeast Asian island country. It is there that he intends to find meaning in life by teaching the children of Omeara. On the train from the capital to the village, Arun meets Seth, an army captain, who warns him that Omeara is “… a place that’s full of shadows … a place where questions have no answers. It’s a place where two plus two equals five.”

In Omeara, Arun discovers a reality far beyond what is assumed in the capital. A ramshackle shelter for accommodations. A lack of electricity. A population of villagers with secrets that change at a moment’s notice. His students sporadically appear for lessons, those children unfit as field laborers due to missing limbs or because of “lesser” abilities, imposed or not by the presence of war. Explosions at night are called “thunder,” while skirmishes occur out of sight with the spoils dragged into the town square as proof of the army’s “victories.” All the while, Arun is reminded that he should distance himself from the uncertainties of Omeara’s life. Seth counsels him that he must learn “… how not to let the darkness in.” But the darkness does creep in, Arun is personally involved in events that prove fatal, and life as he knows it changes.

Bissoondath accomplishes two important things in this novel. First, he illustrates the facileness of insurgency and war without naming names or pinpointing places. The story could be set in any one of a dozen locations around the current globe. Second, the author carefully graphs Arun as he evolves from the naïveté and idealism of untouched, well-to-do youth to the earned-and-learned cynicism of reality fostered by Omeara’s political environment. Arun’s changes over the course of the book are delicately plotted against a deliberate ambiguity of who truly causes the pain and strife. This vagueness, to the author’s credit, allows him to neither judge nor choose sides. However, Arun’s characterization lacks substance, resulting in an absence of empathy for Arun, the changes he undergoes, the tragedies he bears, and the truths he accepts.

The visuals are eloquently described in detail enough to make one wonder who the director of photography might be for a film version of the book, but there is little emotion to be gleaned from cover to cover. One never feels the fear, the terror, the uncertainty, the confusion that Arun must have experienced. Acceptance of an oppressive situation may be a way of life in Omeara, but there are too few glimpses into the hearts and wounds that make the village what it is. While it is understood that the village lives under the mighty weight of the blurred and indistinct forces battling around it, the people who inhabit this world do not reflect this weight until it is too late to care.

Certainly, this is no typical story about terrorism and war, but sadly, neither is it fully satisfying in its execution.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as an advertising and promotions copywriter.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in beautiful Central North Carolina where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a long-time Books for Youth reviewer with Booklist magazine/American Library Association....