Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears Death?Sometimes, I come to the end of a book and do not want to talk about it. This is not because a book is bad, but because I have come to the end and I am not done reading. Or, to be clearer, I'm done reading in a physical sense, but not in the sense of making sense of what I've read.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (Penguin - DAW), even days after I've finished reading, is one of those books that's difficult to distill, and I have never seen a summary that does justice to how very complex and compelling it is. If you've seen reviews, then you've seen words like genocide, female genital mutilation/circumcision/cutting (worth a websearch to get more information on use of each term, and reasons for and against each), rape, and war. Yet that's simplifying Who Fears Death.

In a futuristic, post-apocalyptic desert, similar to today's southern Sudan, Onyesonwu's Okeke mother is raped by a Nuru man, making her Ewu--visibly, irrevocably different, and outcast from both the Okeke and the Nuru. Onyesonwu, whose name means "who fears death," rebels against the restrictions of her society, and ultimately, decides to rebel against the rules of her world, destroying her father in order to save not just her loved ones, but people who have not loved her. The story, part fantasy, part science fiction, part magical realism, part many other things and Okorafor's original style of storytelling, doesn't shy away from brutal and graphic description, but difficult real-world themes are interwoven with the magical tale seamlessly. Onyesonwu's story is raw, emotional, and nuanced.

It would be easy to highlight a dozen craft elements that I found impressive, such as Okorafor's ability to make me feel like I'm right there, smelling the smells and seeing the sights Onyesonwu does, but I think my favorite is the recurring theme of transformative dying. Several times, a traumatic experience is referred to as a death, while the character lives on, changed, living a new life. I love the idea of the self being reborn throughout life, and death(s) being not endpoints, but waystations, and this theme brings an optimistic, hopeful note to otherwise tragic moments in the characters' lives.

Originally published on the Sirens LiveJournal.

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