Who Fears Death is a grand example of the difficulties of doing readers’ advisory: it most certainly does not fit into the genres it was advertised to be…but then I read a lot. On to the review.
It’s got post-apocalyptic elements: the protagonist’s mother mentions a time when there were seas. It’s got science fiction elements: handheld computers are more sophisticated than that available today and portable water-collecting devices are readily available (for which see the post-apocalyptic elements about seas). It’s got fantasy elements: magic practitioners have permeated society as our characters know it, and the protagonist is not only one of those practitioners but also a shape-changer—no cuddly otters or proud stags or noble wolves here, though. Our protagonist prefers a vulture for its ability to survive in problematic climates. Despite the obvious fantastical elements, I would not suggest it to anyone looking for a science fiction or a fantasy novel, because it’s not really a book about any of these things.
It’s a book about the very real cultural and ecological problems1 facing Africa today and in the foreseeable culture. There’s genocide. There’s racial and cultural and gender and religious discrimination. There’s shortages of water. And so on.
Overall, it’s a coming of age quest novel, a battle against evil and prejudice and discovering one’s own heritage. Onyesonwu, the protagonist, is the child of rape and mixed blood; her father rapes her mother after destroying the mother’s village and inhabitants and leaves her for dead. Her mother raises her alone in the desert until Onyesonwu is six, then moves to a village; she tries to fit into the local culture but is unusual enough that this is unlikely. Onyesonwu has magical powers, and searches for a teacher, but none will have her as she is a mere female; she continues until the local shaman takes her on. In the end, she and the girls with whom she went through the adolescence ritual (and their boyfriends) go in quest of her father, a powerful sorcerer who is trying to kill her because he believes her to be the fulfillment of a prophecy.
This is not a book for the squeamish. For one thing, female circumcision plays a pivotal role in the book, although Okorafor neither glorifies it nor demonizes it; she presents it as an accepted part of the society in which the protagonist spends her late childhood and early adolescence, but also as something which does not serve the main characters and which they must correct (and they do, through magic). The whole purpose of the “coming of age quest” is (I think) for the girls to discover for themselves how much of this culture they wish to keep and what they want to change.
I’m not going to touch the “American literature needs the African Voice” discussion with a ten foot pole (although we do, deity knows) because, quite frankly, it’s insulting to the African authors writing in the U.S. these days. Nobody bangs on about The European Voice, and it doesn’t make sense from a literary standpoint to group all authors of a given ethnic group together in any case, because they don’t write the same sort of thing, and to lump all people from a given continent is, frankly, ridiculous. I am going to say that I await more books from this particular author; Who Fears Death isn’t brilliant–it has a few flaws I’ve noticed in other early novels, but it was fascinating enough that I’m hoping she continues writing long enough to polish her own voice and style. It’s obviously an agenda driven novel, something I’ve never cared for, and one with a very dispiriting ending, but well written enough that I eagerly await Okorafor’s future work.
1I think. I’m not African in any sense of the word–not in color or culture or country of origin. I just read a lot.