BookBrowse Reviews The King's Rifle by Biyi Bandele

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The King's Rifle

A Novel

by Biyi Bandele

The King's Rifle by Biyi Bandele
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  • Paperback:
    Apr 2009, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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A powerful first novel that depicts the experiences of black African soldiers fighting in Burma in WWII

The King's Rifle has a rather disjointed beginning that readers may find off-putting. It begins with a prologue that, while based on fact and relevant to the history of the Chindits, has little to do with the rest of the novel. The two or three chapters that follow strike the reader as somewhat rambling, with the narrative touching on multiple subjects, stream-of-consciousness style. It's a disorderly approach, and readers may have difficulty orienting themselves at first. It is worth persevering, however, as those who read on will discover both an exceptional historical fiction novel and a powerful coming-of-age story.

Bandele's background as a playwright is evident throughout the book. Indeed, much of the novel reads like a play. Most of the action is advanced through dialogue, and readers come to know "soja" Ali Banana and his cohorts through their inner musings and their conversations with each other. One of the book's strengths is Bandele's ability to develop his characters. The reader observes these disparate individuals mature and form deep bonds with one another, and again, Bandele accomplishes this through dialog rather than description.

Bandele also does an excellent job of incorporating details that are well-established fact, such as descriptions of weapons and aircraft, the 85-pound backpacks the Chindits carried through the mountains, and the contents of the K-ration packs with which they were supplied. Although from time to time these sections seem a little too encyclopedic, they're often used to provide a little comic relief as well as to put the reader more fully in the soldiers' shoes.

"They drank from their chaguls and then settled down to the grim but necessary task of eating their supper. Field Ration, Type K, or the 'K' ration as it was better known, consisting of three meal-packs in one box, was an American invention designed to sustain troops under emergency conditions when no other food was available. It consisted of a fruit bar, a tin of meat and a packet of biscuits which all looked like paper pulp that had been pasted together and tasted like cat food; a pack of purified grape sugar which tasted nothing like grape or sugar and was so revolting even the mules refused to eat it; and a pack of lemonade powder so acidic it worked better as a floor-cleaner than as a drink."

Where descriptive paragraphs are employed to illustrate conditions on a march or within camp, they are rich and evocative. Some readers may feel, however, that Bandele relies too much on dialogue and devotes too little narrative to the Chindits' surroundings. Another criticism that could be leveled against the book is a lack of emotional depth. Readers are left to imagine how these young men must feel, killing, watching their friends die, and being in constant danger of being killed themselves. Having said that, this comment comes from the point of view of an armchair warrior; whereas the story is realistically told from the perspective of men fighting a guerilla war against the Japanese in the densest of booby-trapped tropical jungles, who are constantly on their guard against the enemy. This is not an environment conducive to contemplation, indeed ones very survival likely lies in not giving way to feelings.

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.

About the Author
Biyi Bandele is an award-winning novelist, playwright, and director. He was born in Kafachan, Nigeria, in 1967, the son of a veteran of the Burma campaign. In 2006 he was named by the UK newspaper The Independent as one of Africa's fifty greatest artists. He lives in London.


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Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review is from the April 1, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.



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