Keisha Bush’s No Heaven for Good Boys (Random House 2020) is one of the more delicate and devastating debut novels I’ve read in a long while. The tragedy of it is exquisitely crafted, clinging to the reader like small, dirty hands begging for money, or a hungry child suckling at his mother’s breast.
It’s a novel of family, with the power and magic of a mother’s love and grief soaring through every page. The novel opens with six-year-old Ibrahimah dreaming of his mother. He’s a Talibé, a student sent to study the Qur’an under the guidance of a teacher, called a marabout. It’s an old tradition, and Ibrahimah is one of many boys under the guidance of Marabout Ahmed; his cousin, Etienne, is also a student and has been for many years. While rooted in faith, the tradition has become corrupt, resulting in significant atrocities against the children. (Bush’s firsthand experiences while in Senegal led to her writing this novel.) Marabout Ahmed is one of the more chilling villains, making Fagin look like a cinnamon roll. On good days, he neglects the children. On bad days, he beats them. On the worst of days, he sexually assaults them.
The horrors faced by the young boys are juxtaposed with unexpected kindness and unlikely friendships. They’re let into the zoo and a soccer game for free. They make friends with a wealthy boy who brings them to his house where they are bathed and fed. Some of the passersby are especially kind. And Bush ensures that she includes descriptions of marabouts who are not trafficking and abusing children but are teaching them while keeping them fed and clothed. Not all Talibé are abused and neglected, and it’s very important that Bush included those details as well.
Ibrahimah’s experiences are broken up by his mother’s. Maimouna is in mourning when we first meet her; her baby has died, and the grief is eating at her. In her heartache, she clings to Ibrahimah as he is now the youngest. Despite being six, she begins to nurse him again – his hungry suckling reminding her of the baby she lost and easing the physical pain in her heavy breasts as well as the pain in her heart. She fights her husband over sending him to Marabout Ahmed but tradition and pressure from Etienne’s parents mean he goes.
Maimouna’s journey through her anger and grief is highlighted by a sickness that consumes her. The magic against her is a dark one, but her family has its own secrets. Her mother is called, and the magic employed is one that has been passed down by the women – a different tradition. She will do whatever it takes to ensure Ibrahimah returns, and that love carried on the wings of a red bird is my takeaway from this novel.
This Senegalese Oliver Twist highlights Bush as not only a phenomenal storyteller, but a compassionate and truthful observer. My beloved Nadine Gordimer once said, “The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.” This story is beautiful because it is so hungry.
Read this book.