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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Burma Boy
(The King's Rifle)

by
Biyi Bandele


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The King's Rifle



Title: Burma Boy
Author: Biyi Bandele
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007
Length: 224 pages
Availability: The King's Rifle - US
Burma Boy - UK
The King's Rifle - Canada
La drôle et triste histoire du soldat Banana - France
  • UK title: Burma Boy
  • US title: The King's Rifle

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Our Assessment:

B : colorful if unfocussed World War II story

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 16/6/2007 Jonathan Gibbs
The Guardian . 2/6/2007 Giles Foden
The Independent . 29/6/2007 Tony Gould
New Statesman . 14/6/2007 Dinaw Mengestu
The Observer . 1/7/2007 Robert Collins
Sunday Times . 22/7/2007 David Grylls
TLS . 13/7/2007 Oliver Harris


  Review Consensus:

  Funny, and interesting subject matter (African soldiers in Burma in WWII)

  From the Reviews:
  • "As war novels go, it's a departure from the norm, leavening the gruesome depictions of combat with jokes, proverbs and stories from the lives the soldiers left behind." - Jonathan Gibbs, Financial Times

  • "Next time it looks, the grand list of comic military characters in literature -- from Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy to Private Chonkin and the good soldier Sveijk -- will find its ranks swelled by another member. His name is Ali Banana and he is largely the creation of Nigerian-born playwright Biyi Bandele (…)Burma Boy is all the stronger for keeping its presentation of racial politics implicit rather than explicit." - Giles Foden, The Guardian

  • "Yet there is no whiff of the lamp about this taut, tense and utterly riveting tale of comrades-in-arms undergoing conditions of such adversity as to defy belief. (…) Burma Boy explores to the full the inhumanity of modern warfare while celebrating the humanity of warriors caught up in it. It is a fine achievement, not least in giving the previously unheard West African Chindits a voice of their own." - Tony Gould, The Independent

  • "Military thrills aside, it's also very funny. (…)The absurdity of war has been done before, of course, but what's invigorating about Bandele's novel is his fine detail, and the fresh perspective of the Africans who took part." - Robert Collins, The Observer

  • "That the novel remains fresh is largely due to Bandele’s pungent prose, which intersperses explosive action with African anecdotes and idioms. Although racial tension is only lightly touched on, the author’s sharp awareness of ethnic identity is what makes the book original and moving. Highlighting the heroism and absurdity of war, it also illuminates a forgotten byway of African experience." - David Grylls, Sunday Times

  • "The novel reads as a series of veterans' anecdotes, an invaluable record, insightful and entertaining, but also reticent when it comes to feelings of true horror." - Oliver Harris, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Burma Boy (The King's Rifle in the US) deals mainly with the troops from Britain's West African colonies sent to Burma to fight the Japanese in World War II. As one of them puts it:

The story of the day is that King Joji, monarch of Ingila, is fighting a war in a land called Boma and he wants our help.
       The central figure Bandele tells his story around is Farabiti Banana, who is only thirteen when the story begins, having lied about his age when he enlisted -- which he did largely so he could remain with his friends. He makes it to India, but a case of chickenpox means he has to stay in hospital while the rest of the 12th Battalion, Nigerian Regiment, go on ahead to Burma. The lad is determined to make it to the war-theatre as well, however, and eventually he does.
       What happens there is the stock material of wartime experiences: the great heat, the long marches, the surprise attacks. Much of the time is spent defending the reinforced 'White City', which is constantly under attack from the Japanese. The enemy's relentless assault wears everyone down -- and the reminders of their determination are everywhere, most notably in the sight and smell of:
the decomposing bodies of nearly two thousand Japs strung in an endless array of morbid contortions on the concertina wire encircling the stronghold.
       Going beyond the White City the dangers increase, and the story culminates in a furious firefight in which most of Banana's comrades are killed. Rather than the story of a boy maturing to manhood through the wartime experience, Burma Boy tells of a lad who seems to get younger as the war progresses, only to be suddenly aged by the worst of experiences: at the end he is naked as a baby, but also: "looked to be about fifty years old".
       Bandele's novel moves along in oddly jerky fashion, beginning with a curious Prologue set in Cairo, in which the man who later leads the Nigerian troops attempts suicide. He plays a role in the rest of the novel too, but without being better integrated into the remainder of the story this beginning sticks out oddly. Elsewhere, too, Bandele is better in very localized scenes than creating any narrative flow: Banana's chattering as he introduces himself and tells his stories is entertaining, as are many of the other scenes, but they don't fit very well together into any sort of larger story beyond the simple one that war always affords (of people falling by the wayside as they get killed off).
       Burma Boy does offer an interesting (and often amusing) picture of the experience of African soldiers in Burma in World War II -- and Bandele is particularly good at quickly sketching out the different backgrounds of the Nigerian characters --, but it does not hold together as a novel particularly well.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 April 2009

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Links:

Burma Boy: Reviews: Biyi Bandele: Other books by Biyi Bandele under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Nigerian author 'Biyi Bandele-Thomas was born in 1967. He has written several acclaimed plays and novels.

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© 2009 the complete review

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