Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
October was a month with few books read (yes, I’m aware I’m writing about November’s books here. Bear with me; I’ll get there) and this book was the reason why. I would read a few pages and then have to put it down to . . . I don’t know. Absorb? Digest? Distance? And so I didn’t actually finish it until November (see? Told you we’d get there).
It isn’t that the book is bad, mind you, quite the contrary: this book is AMAZING. But it is a very difficult read, so caveat . . . um . . . reader.
Trigger warnings: rape, sexual assault, attempted sexual assault and violence against the helpless, and female genital mutilation.
The novel is set in Africa (exactly where, we don’t learn until the end. I’m not sure how important the exact location is to story anyway, since things are kind of . . . mythical, for lack of a better word, so I won’t spoil it for anyone) in what I think is the near-or-not-too-distant future (we aren’t given dates in western format at all, but everyone has a computer, and though the computers are old and out of date they are still advanced over what we have now. Also, every traveler has a device for pulling water out of the atmosphere, which I do not believe exist now). It starts in the town of Jwahir, where our hero, Onyesonwu, lives with her parents. Strange things do happen to Onye; for example, one day she loses consciousness after picking up a feather and finds herself naked and high up a tree. Things like that. Onye has magical talent, but it takes her a while to find out. And when she does, there’s only one person in town who can teach her how to properly use her powers, and he won’t. Mostly because she’s a girl, but also because she’s Ewu.
Ewu means that she is the child of rape. Her mother is Okeke, a darker-skinned people who are, according to “the Great Book”, to be slaves to the Nuru, for offenses against the goddess Ani. The Nuru are engaged in genocidal practices, and one of those is the mass-rape of the women of Onye’s Mother’s village, doing their damnedest to impregnate them and thus break up any marriages that might survive their simultaneous attempt to kill all the men in the village. Onye’s Mother’s husband managed to survive, but when he realizes what happened to her, well . . .
Ewu are expected to be violent and dangerous, and Onye is certainly both of those. But she may also be the chosen one who will re-write the Great Book. And someone, a Nuru sorcerer who may have a personal reason for his actions, is certainly trying to kill her . . .
Okorafor’s writing is powerful and her world-building is . . . complete is too weak a word. Still, when Onye starts changing into other creatures it seems a perfectly ordinary and natural part of her world, though it is not so for everyone. Onye’s a strong character, believable and likeable though not, by any means, perfect (being prone to violence is definitely a flaw in her situation. She’s also selfish and thoughtless–a young human being, in other words. I loved her and hoped for her and feared for her, even in scenes where I didn’t particularly like her). The characters around her are similarly well-drawn and the story has mythic resonances that reach across racial barriers, while itself being rooted in Africa.
Highly recommended, but allow yourself time to read it, in case you need it, and remember those trigger warnings.