Who Fears Death is set in (for most of the book) an unnamed (though it’s clear that it’s somewhere on the African continent) place post-ecological apocalypse. Despite the futuristic setting, unfortunately Okorafor could be writing about now – it could easily be any place in the world that suffers the violence that continues to be shamefully under-reported in this country.
The novel opens in a horrific style. The protagonist (Onyesunwo – whose name means “Who Fears Death?”) is the result of a brutal rape. Her mother, an Okeke, whose people are enslaved and persecuted by the Nuru – another people who believe that it is their right to dominate the Okeke. Unfortunately, this is not so far-fetched; the use of rape as a weapon is well documented in the world (if not well-enough known of). Onyesunwo as the product of violence is shunned by the people she goes to live amongst; she looks different, but she is also a reminder to them that they are not at peace. This part of the novel is not easy reading, nor should it be.
“To these people, the murder of Okekes in the West was more story than fact. She had travelled further than she’d thought. These people didn’t want to know the truth. So they watched as mother and child moved about the market. As they watched, they stopped and talked with friends, speaking ugly words that grew uglier the more they were exchanged. They grew angrier and agitated. The finally accosted Najeeba and her Ewu child. They grew bold and self-righteous. Finally, they struck.
When the first stone hit Najeeba’s chest, she was too shocked to run. It hurt. It wasn’t a warning. When the second hit her thigh, she had flashbacks of a year ago, when she died. When instead of stones, a man’s body had slammed against her. When the third stone hit her on the cheek, she knew that if she didn’t run, her daughter would die.”
That said, while Okorafor refuses to shy from the violence inherent in this type of conflict, where the battlefield moves to the womb, there are a number of other ideas explored that, while no-less painful, are handled sensitively and without judgement. At the age of 11, in common with her peers, Onyesunwo undergoes the rite of circumcision. Correctly this would be described as female genital mutilation. Okorafor successfully makes it clear that this is a practice that is wrong, which no amount of well-meaning moral relativism can excuse. Onyesunwo’s mother and beloved adoptive father do not approve of the practice while Onyesunwo doesn’t fully understand what it entails and the consequences of submitting to it. As an outcast for something that she clearly has no control over, she sees the ceremony as a way to make her closer to her peers. In this respect, it succeeds. She gains some close friends who will become important to her through the novel. This was incredibily sensitively handled. It would be easy to denounce Onyesunwo for foolishly allowing herself to be scarred in this way, but it’s easy to see how these practices persist, how women can become complicit in their own oppression.
So far, so worthy. What makes the novel more compelling for me is that while it has a lot to say for itself, it is never didactic. Despite these weighty themes, it manages to avoid being preachy or didactic. It’s delivered as a coming of age fantasy tinged with SF themes. Onyeswuso, many of her friends and the people she encounters, have magical abilities. The growing realisation by Onyewuso that she is powerful is entwined with the difficulties she has in growing up. As mentioned previously, some of these trials are peculiar to just some parts of the world, but others are familiar to anyone the world over. Friendship, relationships with parents and, as they get older, the difficulties that there can be in attempting to form relationships with the other sex. All these themes are universal and should mean that this novel is never pigeon-holed as being specific to one area of the world.
Onyewuso’s personal growth, the realisation of her powers and the circumstances surrounding her own conception all combine to justify the journey central to the novel. Her biological father, as well as being a war-lord, is a powerful sorcerer. He had intended to create an ally for himself (and apparently would have done so, had she birthed a male child). As Onyewuso was a female, he sees her as being a future threat to him and accordingly seeks to intimidate and destroy her. Despite being the archetypal evil dark lord, beloved of fantasy writers everywhere, the character of Onyewuso’s father is deeper than this. He has the obvious mental effect on her as a child; she fears him and believes that he will destroy her. As she ages, she comes to fear him less, leading to the showdown at the end of the book. However, his motivations run deeper than a simple fantasy evil. He is a brutal warlord, intent on wiping out the Okeke people, as he believes them to be inferior (and partly responsible for the state of the world). This adds some depth to his character. Needed, as he is mostly depicted through the recollections of Onyewuso’s mother and her own visions and dreams, infected by his malign presence.
Nnedi Okorafor clearly has talent and skill when it comes to writing. She creates believable, rounded characters, always important, but probably more so when your world is infused with fantasy as this is. Her dialogue and description is crisp, almost spare. This lends the book a matter-of-factness essential for the seriousness of her subject matter. It also isn’t what I always expect from fantasy (though, that’s not to suggest for a second that all fantasy is overly florid, a lot is though – and I think it’s a hard thing to get right).
A wonderful novel and one which deserves to be widely read.