In an unnamed African country, five young people live on the margins of society using an abandoned airplane as shelter. Elimane, the oldest at twenty, serves as the patriarch of the “little family,” was the first to arrive and establish the plane as a home. Khoudiemata, eighteen, ever mindful of the physical and emotional needs of the group, is a steady nurturing presence.
Although the family lives on the edges of society and is often invisible to others, they experience a degree of freedom in being unshackled from social norms, danger lurks as well. They constantly guard against discovery, violence, and hunger. Khoudi, for example, beautiful and shapely, hides herself under baggy clothes and a beanie for protection.
A chance encounter with debonair William Handkerchief allays Elimane’s concerns about the family’s immediate needs. Handkerchief hires Elimane for a series of well-paying jobs, some less than legal, precisely because of his anonymity. At the same time, Khoudi meets the “Beautiful People” scions of the country’s elite. Her association with them allows her to explore her identity and push the boundaries of what she thought possible. As Khoudi pulls away from the family to create her own space, Elimane worries about the cohesion of the group, and his distraction makes him vulnerable. Ultimately, they each must decide what it means to be part of a family and what it means to be free.
Written in breathtakingly beautiful prose, Little Family bcontains meaning on every page. Sometimes, it comes from a resonant quote, other times a profound theme or keen symbolism. I made so many notes about things I wanted to remember and passages I wanted to return to. My only complaint was that I was not ready to leave the characters behind when the book ended.
I did not think I could appreciate the book more, but then I watched Ishmael Beah’s virtual event with Politics & Prose. Through that, I got an even deeper understanding of his writing process and some of the background behind Khoudi which made me love her even more as a character. For a long time, I know I will be meditating on this novel.
Thank you to Riverhead Books for a copy of the book through my participation in the Mystery Book Club.