Monday 5 November 2012

Who Fears Death

Nnedi Okorafor, 2010
(October 2012)

A confession: I’m pretty crap with blood. Though that’s not right, really. I’ve spilled enough of my own, as well as dealt with other people spilling theirs, to know that the actuality of blood is something I can manage with the minimum of fuss.

It’s the idea of bleeding that turns my stomach; specifically when it’s deliberately induced. I was fine at the birth of our eldest (or as fine as you can be after being awake for 34 hours straight. I know, poor me); fine with all the viscera and fluids flying left, right, and centre. Fine right up until I hear the doctor say, ‘OK, we’re going to have to make a small incision,’ and at that point the breathing exercises became less about encouraging my wife and more about making sure they didn’t have to work around an unconscious 100kg lump lying next to the gurney.

After forty pages of Who Fears Death the narrator (then aged eleven) gets her clitoris cut off. I was reading in Starbucks at the time, and I reckon the staff there would have been even less keen to pick me up off the floor than the midwife would have been. Only myself to blame, really, given the preceding thirty-nine pages also covered ethnic cleansing, gang rape, child abuse and incest. Need more than a frappuccino to get the taste of all that out of your mouth, I can tell you.

It settles down a bit following that opening, but the rest of the book isn’t what you’d call light and fluffy. Patriarchal and ethnic violence are taken as givens and it’s to the author’s great credit that her treatments of these and other pretty grim issues generally don't come across as too preachy or heavy handed. Trouble is, a lot of other stuff doesn’t really come across either. There’s much to admire about this book, genuinely, but there’s an essential blankness at its core that makes it hard to express a stronger sentiment than admiration.

Matching the brutality of the subject matter, the style is very taut. Short sentences, short chapters. While that works well in places, this felt like it should have been a quicker read than it actually was. It’s a mash-up of the New Testament and The Lord of The Rings set in a post-apocalyptic sub-Saharan Africa, with magic. That’s not a concept lacking for room for maneuver or the potential to grab the reader. But. But but but…

It took me a while to figure out why it wasn’t working as well as I'd hoped it might. About a third of the way through the penny dropped when it became clear that Onyesonwu, the eponymous protagonist, was telling her story in flashback to an initially unidentified scribe. I think this is what that blankness stems from. The narrative voice is just a little too obviously the voice of a narrator; we are always slightly too aware that we are being told, not shown. The description tends towards the overly obtrusive –

“…he spoke the words that few women ever hear from a man. “Ifunanya.
“They’re ancient words. They don’t exist among any other group of people… this word only has meaning when spoken by a man to the one he loves… But the word has strength. It’s wholly binding… Ifunanya is spoken only once in a man’s life. Ifu means to “look into,” “n” means “the,” and anya means “eyes”. The eyes are the windows to the soul.
I could have died when he spoke this word…”

But not before giving us an etymology tutorial, clearly. I’ve elided maybe half of that passage, so you can imagine how in full the impact is somewhat less than heart-stopping for the reader.

More specifically, this is a narrator who has, from early in the book, come to terms with her eventual fate. That realization lends a certain dead-eyed flatness to her tone. It’s a believable voice but not a particularly compelling one, unfortunately. Her companions, when they’re not constantly bitching and whining, go on their own emotional journeys, but the only journey Onyesonwu goes on is ploddingly literal. Sure, her powers develop, but all her emotion (mainly anger) is described from the perspective of her adult self. In a way, that’s completely true-to-life; I’m sure we all make our younger selves seem a touch more mature and consistent when telling stories about our pasts. But the effect of that is to lessen any sense of personal change or development. Technically adept writing, but not so emotionally gripping. Plus the pacing is all over the fucking shop.

I’d obviously be hard pressed to say that I enjoyed this book. But there are some books you don’t enjoy and begrudge the hours of your life wasted on reading them, and others you don’t enjoy but don’t (begrudge the hours etc etc and so on). This is very much in the second category. Time well, if not particularly entertainingly, spent.


  1. I remember not fearing death.
    Those are the scariest folks in the world. I'm no longer a member but their was a certain freedom in thinking "you can't kill me cuz I'm already dead....join me?" I musta oozed that scent because it doesn't matter hom many kids love me and respect me or how many company presidents I teach or cops children I tutor....some folks are convinced I'm absolutely faking it all just to cover the real me....whatever they think that is.

    1. Yeah, I thought you might have something to say about this book title :)

      Funny thing is, the more you become responsible for other people, the scarier it becomes. I think it's called 'growing up'.

  2. Where do you find these books? You certainly cover a fair range.

    1. Here and there: websites, friends. This one won the world fantasy award last year, so it's not all that obscure.