God of Mercy, by Okezie Nwoka

Trigger warning for physical abuse of children.

Somewhere in Igboland (a region in Nigeria) is the small, remote village of Ichulu. This village has resisted European languages and religions in spite of all outside pressure. Their Igbokwe talks to the gods on the villagers’ behalf, warning them of floods and praying for healing or boons. Life is good. But then a girl who can’t speak aloud begins to fly, which throws everything into question. In God of Mercy, the challenging novel by Okezie Nwọka, we see what happens when two men who are afraid of the wide world twist their traditions to try to control the girl who can fly.

Ijeọma is a sweet, caring girl who can fly in moments where she becomes transfixed by the beautiful, joyous world around her. But, because she doesn’t speak out loud (Ijeọma signs), it’s far too easy for everyone else in Ichulu to project their own thoughts onto her. Her mother sees her as a helpmeet. The Igbokwe thinks she’s a sign of divine favor. Her father, however, can only think of his failures when he looks at his oldest daughter. The more she flies—and the more she rises in everyone else’s esteem—the more Ijeọma’s father resents her. When he breaks, he betrays his family by giving Ijeọma to a Christian preacher who specializes in “curing” children who are different or who act out.

There are hints in the early chapters of God of Mercy about Ijeọma’s fate. Small extracts from a diary begin to appear that reveal the horrific, violent treatment Ijeọma receives after her father’s betrayal. Before long we also leave Ichulu and Ijeọma’s family and the Igbokwe to go to Amalike with Ijeọma, where a man who claims to be Christian but acts like anything but tries to “drive the demons” out of the flying girl for nine years. Just like everyone else in Ichulu, this preacher projects his own version of reality and his own ambitions onto Ijeọma.

The middle of God of Mercy up until the last few pages are very hard to read. The abuse suffered by Ijeọma and the other children being kept by the preacher is among the worst I have ever seen in fiction. I was able to make it through because, first, I just had to know if Ijeọma would make it out, and second, because I was fascinated by what this book showed me about faith. There are many true believers in God of Mercy. In spite of their piety, the villains in this book are the ones who are so committed to following their religions’ rules with unwavering devotion. They never wonder if there can be exceptions or that the spirit of the law is more important than the letter. And they never pause when their interpretation of their religion points them in dark directions. The kindest characters in God of Mercy—the ones I think of as the good characters—are the ones who can grow along with their faith. This book turned out to be a revelatory examination of faith and religion.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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