Summary and book reviews of The King's Rifle by Biyi Bandele

The King's Rifle

A Novel

By Biyi Bandele

The King's Rifle
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  • Paperback: Apr 2009,
    224 pages.

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Book Summary

It's winter 1944 and the second World War is entering its most crucial state. A few months ago Ali Banana was a blacksmith's apprentice in his rural hometown in West Africa; now he's behind enemy lines, trekking through the Burmese jungle. He is fourteen years old. Led by the unforgettably charismatic Sergeant Damisa, the unit has been given orders to go behind enemy lines and wreak havoc. But Japanese snipers lurk behind every tree - and if they manage to escape the Japanese, infection and disease lie in waiting. As torrential rains turn the landscape into a muddy death trap, the losses mount up. Homesick and weary, the men of D-Section Thunder Brigade refuse to give up.

Taut and immediate, at once somber and exhilarating, The King's Rifle is the first novel to depict the experiences of black African soldiers in the Second World War. This is a story of real life battles, of the men who made the legend of the Chindits, the unconventional, quick strike division of the British Army in India. Horrific and always brilliantly executed, this vividly realized account details the madness, the sacrifice and the dark humor of that wars most vicious battleground. It is also the moving story of a boy trying to live long enough to become a man.

First published in the UK as Burma Boy.

PROLOGUE: CAIRO

1

Two years into the war, on a day so hot and stifling the usually bustling thoroughfares of Cairo were all but deserted, a spare, dishevelled looking Englishman with a stooping gait staggered through the city's dark alleyways and bazaars, jostling with horses, camels, bicycles, mopeds, pushcarts, pedestrians and cars, looking, he said, for a chemist. To every hawker he approached and tried to speak to, on narrow, congested streets wafting with the odour of ginger, cumin, sandalwood and mint; and at every shisha-pipe-smoke-filled coffee house he wandered into, it seemed, as he struggled to speak but seemed only to slur, that he was looking for something which existed only in his fever-sapped imagination; that much was clear, that this strange man, dressed in a British army uniform that hung loosely on his shrunken frame, and wearing a major's rank, was in the grips of a fierce and crippling fever. He shivered under the blistering heat, his teeth ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

Overall, The King's Rifle is an exceptional work that gains depth as it progresses toward its compelling and unforgettable dénouement. Bandele's writing style may not appeal to all readers, but those interested in the story of this mostly unheralded band of soldiers will want to put The King's Rifle high on their lists.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

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Media Reviews

While, as a writer, I know better than to believe narrative alone can change the way our nations respond to each other, I do believe, however irrationally, that it's harder to say that our lives are "hell" and that our conflicts are unavoidable when the truth is sitting right in front of you.

The Financial Times - Jonathan Gibbs

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.

The Guardian - Giles Foden

It would spoil the ending of this short, powerful book (rarely does one wish a novel longer) to say what happens. ... Burma Boy is all the stronger for keeping its presentation of racial politics implicit rather than explicit.

The Guardian - Robert Collins

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.

The Independent - Tony Gould

[A] taut, tense and utterly riveting tale of comrades-in-arms undergoing conditions of such adversity as to defy belief.

The Times - David Grylls

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.

Publishers Weekly

Bandele favors a straight-ahead style fueled by imagery and wordplay, and his perspective on heavily traveled literary territory is refreshing and even endearing.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A revelation of unsung heroism, distinguished by love of language and lightness of touch.

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Beyond the Book

The Chindits

Major General Orde Charles Wingate was a controversial figure in the British military during WWII. He was abrasive and opinionated, with ideas about warfare that struck those around him as either idiotic or sheer genius. Many of his superiors were impressed by him; others thought him a madman.

Wingate was born in India in 1903. He gained a commission in the Royal Artillery in 1922, beginning a lifelong career in the military. During the years that followed he served in the Sudan and later in Palestine. In 1940-41 he formed a commando unit, "Gideon's Force," which operated on the Ethiopian-Sudanese border, where it was very successful against the Italian Army. He was sent to Burma in 1942 to form a force to ...

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