March 16, 2011

BOOKS: Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor (2010)

We're somewhere in Africa, somewhere after an unspecified apocalypse, and human nature hasn't changed much. In this part of Africa, the Okeke and Nuru tribes have reached an unsteady, unsatisfactory state of co-existence. In some places, they mostly leave one another alone; where they live together, the Okeke are usually servants and slaves to the Nuru.

Into this world Onyesonwu is born, to an Okeke mother who'd been raped by a Nuru soldier. The tribes look different enough from one another that such children can usually be identified on sight, and these children (known as Ewu) are outcasts. It is believed that as the children of violence, they will grow up to be violent themselves, or at the very least, to bring violence down upon their community.

But Onye has powers that are rare among her people. Before she reaches her teens, she's begun shape-shifting, taking on the forms of various birds. The local sorcerer is reluctant to take her on as a pupil, both because she is a girl and because she is Ewu, but her power cannot be denied. As Onye grows to adulthood, news arrives of a new leader among the Nuru, who has decided to strictly follow the teachings of the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke for good. It becomes clear that it is Onye's destiny to challenge this general.

The story follows a relatively familiar pattern -- the coming-of-age of a child with special gifts and a difficult destiny -- but the African setting gives it a distinctive flavor. That setting can be a bit distancing at times; I often had the sense that I was reading a fairy tale from a culture so foreign to me that I was missing basic cultural references. There are parts of the story that I'm sure would carry more symbolic resonance if I were more familiar with African literature and mythology. (Try to imagine, for instance, what it would be like to read Cinderella without understanding any of the cultural associations that surround "prince," or "ball," or "stepmother.")

Okorafor's pacing often felt slow to me, but again, I wonder if this is a cultural difference; I'm wanting a hurry-up-and-get-to-the-point story from characters and a world that are tuned to a more leisurely pace.

Despite that slight sense of alienation from Okorafor's world, I did enjoy the book, and it's probably a good thing to experience that feeling of being on the outside looking in once in a while. (Certainly makes it easier to empathize with Onye, who spends most of the book feeling that way.) Onyesonwu is a marvelous character who can't always overcome her anger, and who sometimes gives in to her power without thinking first. Great strength and great impulsiveness can be a dangerous combination, and watching Onye navigate those tricky waters is fascinating.

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