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Original, effective, but also grim and dispiriting
on 17 September 2012
"Who Fears Death" is a novel set in Africa. In fact, it is a fantasy / science fiction novel set in a postapocalyptic Africa, but to be honest, this only became clear to me very late in the novel.
Our heroine, Onyesonwu, is an "Ewu", a mixed race girl, born as a result of a rape. Permanently an outsider, she is passionate, stubborn, quick to anger, and, it turns out, adept at using magic / juju. She is determined to learn magic and change the world.
The world, meanwhile, is a desert, populated by two tribes / races: Nurus and Okekes. Nurus rule, Okekes are slaves. There's been an uprising by Okekes before Onye was born. Now there is a slow-moving genocide (Nurus killing Okekes), ongoing since before Onye's birth, and continuing, brutally.
There is a lot of stuff in this novel that makes the reader think, and which offers itself for debate and discussion. Much of its core is about the relationship between a group of young people. The novel clearly has a lot to say about women and sex and gender politics. The shifting relationships between our questing youths (four girls, two guys), and the importance of sex, are as much part of the novel as magic and genocide.
Who Fears Death is not a young adult novel (based on the cartoonish cover, and having read only one novel by this author previously, which was a young adult novel, I had the wrong expectations). It is a novel that feels authentically African (which is an achievement, as the author was born and lives in America). The way the story handles tribes, beliefs in juju / magic, and the strange way in which life can go on while civil war and genocide are also occurring, in close proximity - it all feels genuine, incredibly, depressing and eery. We witness female genital mutilation, angry, hateful mobs, weaponised rape, tribalism, execution by stoning to death, incest - at times, this novel feels like a highlights reel of the worst and ugliest sides of Africa (and families in general).
I realise that it is meant to be a novel of hope, of sorts, with a hero who does not readily accept being an outcast for her race, or being seen as a lesser person because of her sex, and who goes on to try to change things. But to me, it was a very hard novel to read. The realistic elements are brutal. The fact that the novel uses magic and prophecy as an agent of change leaves a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. It makes me feel that there is no real hope for Africa at all, and dreaming of a magic solution is the only dream that Africa has left. Along the way, we even briefly encounter an almost utopian society in a dream-like sequence, which is founded entirely upon magic. All the reality in this book is grim, all the hope is carried in its magic.
Who Fears Death is an original novel - who else writes science fiction about Africa? It is also an effective novel, putting some of the brutality that I try not to think about into my life by embedding it in a book I chose for leisure reading. But it is not a book that makes me hopeful, or that gives me any happiness. It made me realise how my image of Africa is already postapocalyptic / dystopian - if it takes me until 80% of a book have passed before I understand that this is meant to be a post-climate-change, post-technological-collapse future, then that tells me something. It tells me I am ignorant, but it also tells me that Africa must be a grim and terrible place, to be so indistinguishable from postapocalyptic dystopias to the ignorant. Most of all, the book tells me that there is no hope for some parts of Africa ever to develop, to become something less brutal, less oppressive, more humane: even in science fiction, it takes god-like magic, and god-like prophets and messiahs for anything to change. To me, Who Fears Death is terrifying and grim.