Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is a book that it should have been a lot harder to read, given the subject matter. The author wrote in the afterword that she was inspired–if that’s the right word–by a 2004 article about “weaponized rape” in the Sudan. It’s amazing and horrible to think that such an interesting book could come out of that kind of source material. This book took some serious chutzpah to write, and I have to admire Okorafor’s courage.
The book jacket claims that this book is set in a post apocalyptic Africa, but the land and people are so different that it’s easy to forget that this is supposed to be earth. The protagonist, Onyesonwu, is a mixed race child and the product of rape. While she has unusual talents, everyone except her mother and non-biological father shun her, dislike her, and fear her. Instead of caving to public opinion, Onye grows up brave, strong, and utterly determined to better herself and learn how to use her gifts. Beyond that, she is driven by a terrible need for revenge on her biological father. She learns that that man who raped her mother is organizing a genocide against her mother’s people. With a few friends and the love of her life, Onye sets out west to kill her biological father and stop the Nuru’s plans to wipe out the Okeke.
I wasn’t sure what the purpose of this book was supposed to be at the beginning, but as the plot developed it turned into a kind of inside out gospel. Characters make constant reference to a Great Book, which explains the apocalyptic event in vague, Biblical allegory. If the Great Book is analogous to the Old Testament, there is a prophecy that claims that a great sorcerer is coming to rewrite the book. Onye believes that she is that messiah-like figure. Her travels in the West with her companions (read disciples, but much more human) remind me of parts of the New Testament, but with added wrath and foibles. Even the ending of this book is remarkably similar to the end of the Gospels and the writing style has the same sparse, plain simplicity.
Its subtle, Gospel-like allegory really made the book before me because, without it, I don’t know if I would have made it past the first chapters because of the violence against women and a certain cultural practice that no women should ever suffer. This is going to be a difficult book to recommend to people. This book demands a certain amount of bravery on the reader’s part.
This is a book that demands that you spend a lot of time thinking about it afterward. I finished it yesterday and I know that I’m going to be pondering Who Fears Death‘s lessons. I may have to read it a couple more times in order to get to the bottom of it. Well, I already knew that great books are difficult. In this case, it’s not the plot or the motives that are tricky to parse, it’s the meaning behind it all that’s hard to get at. There aren’t any easy answers in this book, since it seems like all the characters get punished in one way or another. I will say that I hope this book doesn’t disappear. I hope a lot of people read this book and discuss it. It deserves to become a major work.