Who Fears Death

Based on a couple of reviews I've read since my return from the Balkans last month, I was keen to read this novel. I was aware that it would be unlike what I normally read, which made Nnedi Okorafor's first work aimed at the adult market even more appealing. My only fear was that it would turn out to be as underwhelming and politically heavy-handed as Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow. Fortunately, though there are social and political facets to Okorafor's tale, the author avoided the usual pitfalls and wrote a compelling coming-of-age story featuring a strong-willed heroine one can root for.

Here's the blurb:

International award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor enters the world of magic realist literature with a powerful story of genocide in the far future and of the woman who reshapes her world.

In a post-apocalyptic Africa, the world has changed in many ways, yet in one region genocide between tribes still bloodies the land. After years of enslaving the Okeke people, the Nuru tribe has decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke tribe for good. An Okeke woman who has survived the annihilation of her village and a terrible rape by an enemy general wanders into the desert hoping to die. Instead, she gives birth to an angry baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand. Gripped by the certainty that her daughter is different—special—she names her child Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient tongue.

From a young age, stubborn, willful Onyesonwu is trouble. It doesn’t take long for her to understand that she is physically and socially marked by the circumstances of her violent conception. She is Ewu—a child of rape who is expected to live a life of violence, a half-breed rejected by both tribes.

But Onye is not the average Ewu. As a child, Onye’s singing attracts owls. By the age of eleven, she can change into a vulture. But these amazing abilities are merely the first glimmers of a remarkable unique magic. As Onye grows, so do her abilities—soon she can manipulate matter and flesh, or travel beyond into the spiritual world. During an inadvertent visit to this other realm she learns something terrifying: someone powerful is trying to kill her.

Desperate to elude her would-be murderer, and to understand her own nature, she seeks help from the magic practitioners of her village. But, even among her mother’s people, she meets with frustrating prejudice because she is Ewu and female. Yet Onyesonwu persists.

Eventually her magical destiny and her rebellious nature will force her to leave home on a quest that will be perilous in ways that Onyesonwu can not possibly imagine. For this journey will cause her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture, and ultimately to learn why she was given the name she bears: Who Fears Death?

The tale is set in a post-apocalyptic Africa, in the Seven Rivers Kingdom, which is comprised of the lands that used to be known as the Kingdom of Sudan. And although it is set in a far future, the story is a reflection of the atrocities committed in the Darfur region and elsewhere on the continent. The African setting is a welcome change from the habitual European medieval environment so common in speculative fiction. Yet the worldbuilding doesn't intrude on the story itself. A character-driven tale, Nnedi Okorafor only provides enough background information to keep the plotlines moving forward. Still, African traditions and folklore are at the heart of Who Fears Death, adding a layer of uniqueness to an already special story.

As a child of rape, Onyesonwu is an outcast in her community. Brazen, confused, alienated, I feel that the author truly captured the very essence of a bitter, mad, and ambivalent teen girl. But though Onyesonwu is a well-depicted three-dimensional character, such a spirited and uncertain person can be annoying at times. Indeed, the first person narrative means that everything is channeled through Onyesonwu, which can be frustrating from time to time. One thing that particularly got on my nerves was the fact that Onyesonwu cries all the time; when she's sad, when she's hurt, when she's frustrated, when she's scared, when she's happy, etc.

Having said that, such episodes are minor inconveniences when the time comes to weigh in the good and the bad. Who Fears Death is an emotional tale that can pull on the heartstrings when you least expect it. If there is a speculative fiction title about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity and atrocities, Who Fears Death has to be it. I know that some readers have been criticizing Nnedi Okorafor for writing a feminist work daring to explore subject matters best left undisturbed, such as the practice of clitorectomy, genocide, racism between various tribes, rape, sexuality, and violence. I find that a bit pathetic, as I feel that the author should be commended for having produced a tale that packs such a powerful emotional punch.

As far as the characterization goes, I feel that Okorafor had a number of interesting characters which comprised the supporting cast. But Onyesonwu's first person narrative prevented the author from giving most of them substance. As a result, most of them are like extras and never truly come into their own as the story progresses. The relationship between Onyesonwu and Mwita, especially, could have been more fleshed out.

Who Fears Death is a relatively short novel, yet the pace can be an issue at times. Though the narrative flows well for the better part of the book, the rhythm can occasionally be sluggish, especially when Onyesonwu and her traveling companions first depart on their quest.

This emotionally charged tale is brought to a very satisfying ending, one that you don't see coming. Who Fears Death is a touching and rewarding read.

I find it shocking that the speculative fiction feminist clique which extolled the virtues of inferior novels such as Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword has not been lauding Who Fears Death. I would expect them to be singing the praise of such a work chronicling the moving coming-of-age tale of a young child of rape such as Onyesonwu. It's a strange world we live in. . .

To learn more about the novel, the author, and a panoply of other details, check out Okorafor's website.

The final verdict: 7.75/10

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4 commentaires:

Dream Girlzzz said...

Don't be silly!

Unless there are bi-curious or gay characters, the Kushner crowd probably won't read this one.

I'm quite curious about it though. Yet another book to add to my wishlist. Damn you Pat!;)

Anonymous said...

Uh, what? The "Kushner crowd" probably overlaps substantially with the "Okorafor crowd". And Nnedi was a guest of honor at the Wiscon convention this year - surely the ultimate accolade of the feminist spec-fic community.

Anonymous said...

When you say it's a feminist work, do you think it can be fully enjoyed by most SFF male readers? I've always had problems getting into "feminist" books in the past even though I like well drawn female characters. But when something is characterized as inherently feminist, I could never really get into it. Funny you should mention the Kushner book because I hated that one.

But Who Fears Death sounds really interesting...


Patrick said...

I think that Nnedi Okorafor's WHO FEARS DEATH can be enjoyed by anyone, male or female, who enjoys a moving novel.

Yes, the emancipation of women is an aspect that lies at the heart of the book, as the author explores the brutality and viciousness visited upon women of all ages in patriarchal societies across the African continent.

Okorafor deserves kudos for tackling such issues. So I encourage everyone whose curiosity has been piqued to pick up WHO FEARS DEATH and give the novel a shot.

You can then decide for yourself... =)