A MOONLESS STARLESS SKY BY ALEXIS OKEOWO

Published: October 2017 by Hachette Books

Genre: Nonfiction / Political Science

My Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

A Moonless Starless Sky

I was offered an early copy of this one from the people over at Hachette Books in exchange for an honest review. I jumped at the chance, as this book sounded fascinating, and I was not at all disappointed.

As the subtitle suggests, this is a book about extremism in Africa. Extremism that is still taking place today, during our lifetime. From the very beginning of this book, that struck me. I think in we often live in a bubble here in the United States, and I think we like to imagine that all the bad things that have happened are a part of history. It’s easier to think about the horrific acts that humans can do to one another when it is framed as an event of the past, something confined to the history books. There are tragedies of course, that we must accept and deal with in real time. But somehow I’ve managed to go most of my 24 years without knowing much about the subject matter in this book, and I’m probably not alone in that.

So first of all, thank you to Alexis Okeowo, for writing this book. It has opened my eyes to situations in Africa that I knew very little about. It also presents these people, the subjects Okeowo focuses in on who have found themselves in horrifying and extraordinary situations, in such a humane light. I do not get the feeling that they are being exploited here for the sake of a story. I believe Okeowo is attempting to explain their situations and their actions without judgement, so that people can better understand what has happened and what is still happening. She clearly is invested in their lives, you can see that much in the little bits of her own narrative we see within the chapters. But she is also able to write about her subjects with an objective distance that allows the reader to see a clear image of them. I was very impressed.

In this book, Alexis Okeowo tells four separate stories in four different African countries, Uganda, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Somalia. She writes of kidnappings and murder and rape and slavery, of girls and women being threatened just for playing basketball. This book was not an easy book to read. It’s quick and accessible, but the subject matter is heavy.

Okeowo explains and summarizes the climate in each of the countries, details how the extremist groups, whether Christian or Muslim or neither, came to be and how they’ve impacted the people around them. I learned so much. There’s a lot of history here, but history that is a couple decades old, rather than the hundreds of years past history we so often learn in school. The format of the first four chapters is roughly this: explain a little bit of history, for example of the LRA or Boko Haram, and then narrow down into the specific people she has met and from who have shared their story. Then the next four chapters revisit each story, explaining where they’ve gone, where they are today. This book is large in scale, in what it is attempting to do, and I think a big part of its success is the fact that Okeowo really does focus in on individual people. She explains what it was like from a human perspective.

There were times when the writing felt choppy and disjointed. I was often able to forget that and get caught up in these horrific and also amazing true stories, but there were definitely times I got hung up on a paragraph full of super short sentences, description and information thrown in without fluidity. This book does not read like a book of fiction – and don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that it should. But I do think at times the prose could have been more polished so that it wasn’t distracting.

As I reached the end, I found myself really wanting a conclusion. Sure, each of the four stories has a conclusion individually, but I wanted a bigger one, one that served as a conclusion for the book as a whole. I turned the last page, expecting and needing just a little bit more to end on. I think I wanted an end to Okeowo’s story here, and while I know that this is not at all meant to be her story, some of her personal narrative is interweaved into the stories. And that being the case, I would have liked for her to finish with just a page or two of conclusion.

Although hard to read, I learned so much from this book and it really revealed what a gaping hole I have in my knowledge when it comes to the types of extremism going on in Africa (and likely in other countries around the world as well!). I never learned any of this in school (which I find appalling honestly, now that I know more about it), and sadly I hadn’t done any of my own reading until now. I suppose that serves as further proof about the importance of reading and continuing to learn outside of school. I would really love to keep reading on this subject. These stories were fairly focused in nature, and while they provided a lot of background in order to understand the circumstances, I know there’s still so much I don’t know. What suggestions do you have for further reading? Leave them in the comments below, or send me a message! I’d love to hear from you.

2 thoughts on “A MOONLESS STARLESS SKY BY ALEXIS OKEOWO

  1. I’ll add this book to my recommendations list! I agree – the day to day reality and depth of political turmoil in the world gets muted by daily journalism. I think it requires a book, or at least long form journalism, to bring home the realities.

    I had a similar experience reading a book on Cambodia this weekend (http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/08/16/reviews/980816.16issacst.html). What I knew about Cambodia beforehand was limited to “I’m pretty sure we dropped some bombs there”; it was a terrific, albeit terrible and difficult, read.

    Liked by 1 person

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