Historical fiction that explores the tumultuous, violent politics of Cold War–era Liberia.
Lifelong friends and career soldiers Maxwell Forkpa and Samuel Dahn are mostly content as military men, but they bristle at the unfair treatment they and other disadvantaged Liberians receive at the hands of the elite. When the United States government decides the current president of Liberia has gotten too cozy with the communists, an operative helps the friends facilitate a violent coup. Idealists to start, Forkpa and Dahn only want to disassemble a corrupt regime and establish a true democracy, but with the military forced to hold power while elections are organized, Forkpa reluctantly takes the role of president. His hesitance, however, doesn’t last long as he begins to discover the wealth and power at his disposal as the head of state. Soon, he’s willing to do whatever he can to keep his position, including betraying Dahn and forcing him to flee Liberia. Forkpa becomes increasingly corrupt, executing or jailing his enemies, publicly rigging elections and installing his supporters in positions of power. Meanwhile Dahn, now an avatar of vengeance, prepares his forces to depose Forkpa, a struggle likely to leave their country in tatters. Debut author Kpahn has chosen an intriguing and often overlooked subject, but he isn’t quite able to do justice to the material. Characterization, especially of the two central figures, is alternatingly broad and on the nose, which drains the novel of impact: e.g., Maxwell’s “parents had accepted their poverty state. He Maxwell wanted to rise beyond where fate placed him in life hoping to better his lot in a modest way.” The “power corrupts” theme is a common one, and the treatment here is too obvious to add much to the conversation. An episodic and choppy plot leaves the story disjointed, especially as characters come into focus and go without much story logic. There are moments of suspense—Dahn’s invasion, the accidental execution of a reporter, etc.—but flat characters and mechanical issues (“I had a friend whom we once did everything together until he lied on my name”) prevent the novel from taking off.
Chronicles a fascinating chapter in history but is marred by weak characters, underdeveloped relationships and shaky plot development.