Review of WHO FEARS DEATH by NNEDI OKORAFOR
This is an ominous tale worthy of shudders, not due to any fantastical beasts but because the story is filled with the dark side of humanity that, sadly, doesn’t feel at all unrealistic or exaggerated. The redemptions here are plenty: strong writing, haunting characters, stirring relationships, and politics both familiar and magical. Despite the book’s virtues, it wasn’t easy to stomach the violence and cruelty that’s almost mundane in Onyesonwu’s life. This is a beautiful, terrible book and I’m grateful that it was difficult to read.
Onyesonwu has been dealt a painfully inequitable burden in life: she is a child of rape and her lighter skin marks her as such. Those who don’t think she should be killed still hardly consider her an equal. Right near the start of the book the war rape of Onyesonwu’s mother, along with many other women, is described in vivid, excruciating detail. I have read my share of violence, including a lot of rape, but this particular scene skyrocketed to the most agonizing that I have ever read. I was quite seriously tempted to toss the book to the floor and bolt to the bathroom. My stomach rebelled not so much at the level of violence but at just how real it felt. Honestly, though, I think that’s good. There’s something irresponsible about rape scenes that are easy to read. I’m not against violence in books but I do find myself worked up when it’s clearly thrown in there for “spice.” If I’m going to read a rape scene, I want it to make my skin crawl like this one did. I want to be reminded that this really happens - this part isn’t fantasy - and that the emotional consequences last far longer than the actual rape.
However, if you think you’re through the worst of it after reading that scene, think again. Before I even had a chance to compose myself, I stumbled into the circumcision scene. The sting of this one doesn’t lie so much in violence, but more in how it’s drawn out. It’s clear that Onyesonwu can leave at any point, but she has a desperate hope that her peers will accept her if she goes through the same eleventh year rite as all the other girls. I won’t revel whether or not she goes through with the circumcision, but it’s a long scene that actually roused my adrenaline as I mentally begged Onyesonwu to leave while she still could. Okorafor describes each minute in detail, reminding the reader that Onyesonwu’s opportunity to back out is ticking away.
Horror and hope are well-balanced in this world, even though there’s such a heavy dose of horror. Onyesonwu’s magic, in a sense, stems from pain, something she struggles with daily. She’s not a pure storybook victim who takes the beatings from fate without doling out anything herself. She can be rash and commits some terrible actions, but I could always understand her motivations and how her traumatic past has filled her with so much anger.
A small, bright light of comfort can be found in Onyesonwu’s friendships. Friends are few and not easy to find for her, but circumstance brings her a handful that prove touchingly loyal, even if their fear of her still shines through on occasion. The romantic relationship that she enters into is also full of such depth that I will probably only undermine it if I attempt to summarize.
One last quirk that I want to mention is the connection to ZAHRAH THE WINDSEEKER. Those who have read the book or my review might as surprised as I was to learn there’s a link between such vastly different books. Well, it’s extremely subtle. Really, just one line, one little detail, that doesn’t play a significant role in this story at all, but will leave readers familiar with both books pondering for long after.
WHO FEARS DEATH is a rough, emotional read. I cringe at telling anyone not to read an amazing book, but this is definitely one that will always come along with a cautionary disclaimer after any gushing. I am filled with admiration for how Okorafor handles such disturbing subject matter, but I admit to still feeling a little traumatized every time I even think about this book. Again, in an odd way, that’s a good thing. I prefer my trauma in books than in real life, because it can be a safe way to learn more about the world without needing to have the same horrific experiences as, say, Onyesonwu. Still, fictional trauma, when done well, drags along the reminder that this is a reality for someone. Those reminders, which can be life altering, are one of the primary reasons I read.