What is it that is so precious about childhood? In Victorian England, the prevailing view was that children were little more than half-formed, incompetent adults. In more modern times, we often hear that children are the future – but even this attitude locates children’s importance in their potential; what they will become as adults, not what they are. It is only much more recently that childhood itself has become precious. The consensus today seems to be that there is something particular and unique about childhood that requires protection, evidenced by the burgeoning children’s rights movement. This new attitude hit a high watermark here in Australia in 2007 with the release of the aptly named Little Children are Sacred report, which was the catalyst for the Northern Territory Intervention.

At first glance, Majok Tulba’s first novel, Beneath the Darkening Sky, fits perfectly within this paradigm. The novel is narrated by 11-year-old Obinna, an archetypically weak but clever boy in an unnamed African country (though clues in the novel and in Tulba’s acknowledgments suggest either the author’s native South Sudan or Northern Uganda). Obinna lives in a small village with his 13-year-old brother, Akot, and their parents. Bar some typical primary school issues – Obinna is bullied by the bigger boys and tells his teacher; Akot, the fighter, is ashamed of his tattle-tale brother – life in the village is sketched in relatively idyllic terms.

This peace is shattered when the rebels arrive in Obinna’s village to punish government sympathisers and forcibly recruit child soldiers, including Obinna and Akot. Immediately, the tone is set for the rest of the novel. It is unflinching and uncompromising in its depiction of murder and rape, but never gratuitous. The sexual violence in particular is graphic and harrowing; if it seems to appear somewhat casually, especially later in the story, it is because in the world it depicts life and dignity have become cheap. As Obinna himself puts it, ‘Rape, murder and food, that’s our life.’ Any work about child soldiers that obfuscates the normalisation of horrific violence is not only guilty of sentimentalisation; it also misses the point, for it is the perverse education child soldiers are put through that is truly heartbreaking.

It’s tempting then to see the novel as another work that deifies childhood – here is a child, these works say, who is so precious and unique and defenceless that he must be saved from the evils of the world. But Tulba does not simply present us with the image of the dying child that needs to be saved – this is not a call to humanitarian urgency. Despite the simplicity of its prose – in part because of the juxtaposition of simple descriptions and complex moral problems – Beneath the Darkening Sky is a devastatingly beautiful book that refuses to be read complacently. Instead, we see the situation from the child’s perspective, and that is crucial. It means that Obinna cannot be the simple victim. He is a survivor too, and that takes the reader into far murkier moral territory.

Priest, Obinna’s only friend and protector in the rebel camp, is a perfect example of this ambivalence. Priest is a reluctant killer – he sees himself as an ‘Angel of Mercy’, dispensing quick death to victims who might otherwise suffer long torture at the hands of the other rebels. On village raids, Obinna repeats to himself, ‘It’s them or me. That’s what Priest told me.’ But in passing on this rationalisation to Obinna, he allows the young boy to escape the full moral weight of his actions, and ironically becomes Obinna’s best motivator in the rebel camp – far more effective than the cruel Captain. Later, when Priest – whose name gives us a hint about his role as mediator between Obinna and his guilt – is out of the picture, the full weight of his moral burden finally hits our young narrator.

This complexity rebuffs simplistic readings: Beneath the Darkening Sky offers no easy answers. The villains turn out to be older Obinnas, scared and brainwashed, and the government, despite their uniforms, are equally capable of committing atrocities. It’s important to note that Beneath the Darkening Sky isn’t autobiographical – when the soldiers came to Tulba’s village he was shorter than the AK-47 they used to measure recruits. The novel is thus an alternative personal history – an act of imagination. As a result, it is less didactic than portraits of children-who-need-saving. That ambivalence means that the horror is not mediated by a call to action from an author who can offer us a soothing solution. Instead we can only listen to Obinna’s story – a story of innocence and experience.

André Dao is the Editor-in-Chief of Right Now, a human rights media organisation and editor of The Emerging Writer in 2013.