Book review: Who fears death by Nnedi Okorafor

By Thato Magano (@pothaeto)

It is dystopian fantasy like no other encountered before. Written monosyllabically, each sentence is written with purpose but carries with it such charged descriptive energy that you can almost smell the sand in the dessert. In the week that I read the book, it crept into my dreams.

Excerpt from the book:

“That was four year ago. Now see me. People here know that I caused it all. They want to see my blood, they want to make me suffer, and then they want to kill me. Whatever happens after this … let me stop.

Tonight, you want to know how I became what I am. You want to know how I got here … It’s a long story. But I’ll tell you … I’ll tell you. You’re a fool if you believe what others say about me. I tell you my story to avert all those lies. Thankfully, even my long story will fit on that laptop of yours.

I have two days. I hope it’s enough time. It will all catch up to me soon.”

If I’ve ever read a book that has captivated me in this year alone it has to be Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘Who Fears Death’. Set in a post-apocalyptic Sudan, it is the story of a young woman, Onyesonwu and her tumultuous acceptance of the role she is meant to play in life. In this world, we encounter oppressive light-skinned Nuru people who inflict violence on the darker skinned Okeke people in what appear to be acts of ethnic cleansing by the former’s army.

From the start, we learn that Onyesonwu is not to have a charmed life as she is born Ewu (the child of an Okeke woman raped by a Nuru man). Already a forbidden being, the young Onyesonwu lives in the dessert with her mother Najeeba where she learns to appreciate the working of the spirit world and her own singing abilities.

Needing for her child to be educated and encounter real people, Onyesonwu’s mother makes a fateful decision that eventually sees her daughter apprentice with Aro, the sorcerer, and fulfilling a prophesy of having to rewrite the great book as had been predicted by sorcerers years before her.

It is dystopian fantasy like no other encountered before. Written almost monosyllabically, each sentence is written with a purpose and carries with it such charged descriptive energy that you can almost smell the sand in the dessert. In the week that I read the book, it crept into my dreams,  I had vivid re-enactments of the many worlds Onyesonwu’s magical powers allowed her to visit. Okorafor’s imagery is that powerful.

What I absolutely loved about the book is that it challenges gender identity as no one in the alchemy world had anticipated that a young woman would be the chosen one for securing a different future for her people. In the narrative of Onyesonwu’s love affair with Mwita, Okorafor presents a new age coupling where the woman is the more powerful of the two and her man plays the role of supportive cast member. This is important as, even thought they are challenged by this; it highlights the level of respect and trust that can exist when a couple works as a team regardless of who is more powerful of the two.

In ‘Who Fears Death’, Okorafor’s writing style has created a parallel universe that I would like to continually visit. She has captured an idea of a world gone before but not fully lost and seeking to be fully explored by dystopian genre writers of our day. Dare I say it, I believe ‘Who Fears Death’ can be expanded into an epic series that could rival J.R.R Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.

There is enough in the four hundred plus pages of this book for one to know what happened but more can be written. More can be explored about the years that were glossed over that weren’t as central to getting us to the end of the story. More can be written about Onyesonwu’s time in the dessert with her mother, more can be written about her relationship with her step-father Ogundimu and more can be written about how Daib became the man he became. But all that we know is sufficient for now. This is a greatly satisfying read.

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