No Heaven for Good Boys by Keisha Bush
Published by Random House
Publication date: January 26, 2021
Genres: Cultural, Debut, Fiction, Literary
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In Senegal, young boys are often sent from their rural villages to Dakar, a city where they have opportunities for religious and secular education not found at home. Most often it begins when the child is ten, but in the case of seven-year-old Ibrahimah when Marabout Ahmed saves his life, his father, Idrissa, agrees to let the holy man take his son and begin his education early. After all, his nephew, Etienne, has already been at Marabout’s school for five years so he can help Ibrahimah. This age-old, patriarchal tradition is the basis for Keisha Bush’s debut novel, No Heaven for Good Boys.
When No Heaven for Good Boys begins Ibrahimah is already in Dakar. Instead of school, he and the other boys (known as Talibés) are beggars, given quotas of money to earn every day for Marabout, supposedly for their food, clothing, and education. They sleep outside on pieces of cardboard, eat what they can find in the trash, and the only education they’re getting is in abuse and neglect. Failure to meet their quota results in a beating and sometimes rape. The distance between the village and the city means getting home is almost impossible, while the rigid religious culture means boys who do run away are often sent back.
As Ibrahimah struggles to survive in Dakar his mother, Maimouna, is agitating for his return. Told that Ibrahimah’s education would only last a year, she harasses Idrissa, village elders, and even Marabout on his infrequent visits after the year is up. After one of her verbal attacks she learns Ibrahimah won’t be home until he’s 15 and also that Idrissa has unknowingly signed away their parental rights. Bush powerfully portrays a mother’s grief as Maimouna loses her will to live over the loss of her only son.
If No Heaven for Good Boys sounds bleak, it is. Bush shares the little joys in the boys’ lives, like being bought a Coke by a stranger or befriending a wealthy boy whose kind mother takes them in, lets them bathe and gives them her son’s outgrown clothes. Sadly, these interludes are all too brief. She achieves a similar balance for Maimouna, with Idrissa as a support, even in the face of anger from his own brother.
You may be wondering, ‘Why read this kind of fiction? Why not something lighter or heartwarming?’ For much of last year I found this type of novel too difficult, but as some measure of positivity and normalcy seeps into America, I’m drawn back to reading more diversely. Even if it is fiction and in a faraway country, it is a voice sharing what is a real problem. Without awareness, there can’t be change.
The sadness of the novel is unremitting, but I appreciated Bush’s eloquence in capturing not just Ibrahimah’s situation, but that of Maimouna. Neither has control over their own life. If you’re in a place for difficult, but relevant reading No Heaven for Good Boys is eye-opening fiction about an outdated religious tradition and the darkness it allows to flourish.
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