Who Fears Death

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Read 19/08/2016-21/08/2016

Rating: 4 stars

I read about this book on The Reader’s Room and instantly wanted to read it. I had to reserve it through the union catalogue for libraries in the Greater Manchester area. I learned from this experience that Trafford Libraries are better at managing their stock than Manchester City Libraries when I had an email to say the book was ready for me to pick up only for the library to have lost it. (This has happened a second time, so not an isolated incident. Get your act together Manchester.)

After a second attempt to reserve it, the book eventually came in a few weeks ago. I devoured it over a couple of days. It was every bit as good as I was expecting it to be.

Part dystopian fantasy, part traditional folk tale, Nnedi Okorafor’s tale of inter-tribal violence, rape and female castration is unshirking in its telling.

Onyesonwu is the daughter of a raped woman. Her mother is Okeke, a tribe that is subjugated by the Nuru. Nuru militants burn her mother’s village and rape her mother and other women from the village. Onyesonwu’s mother is rejected by her husband and leaves the village to wander the desert, where she gives birth alone. Onyesonwu’s name means “who fears death?” She is Ewu – a child born of violence.

Onyesonwu and her mother leave the desert when Onyesonwu is six. They settle in another Okeke town, where Onyesonwu befriends the town blacksmith. Eventually, her mother and the blacksmith marry.

When Onyesonwu is eleven, a strange thing happens to her. She thinks she has died then comes round, naked, in a tree. From this moment on she knows her difference to others is more than just being Ewu.

A boy is with her stepfather when she wakes up in the tree. Later, she knows him as Mwita, another supposed Ewu. Except he claims his Nuru father loved his Okeke mother, so isn’t really Ewu. Mwita helps Onyesonwu to understand who she is.

Mwita brings Onyesonwu into contact with the sorcerer Aro. Aro sets Onyesonwu on the path she must follow to defeat her biological father, another sorcerer. That path is full of danger, and the telling of how Onyesonwu follows it is gripping. There are some real heart in the mouth moments.

The book is full of the supernatural, but it is also the story of a strong young woman who overcomes the chauvinism and misogyny of her culture and society. Women are silently strong, in the background. Female friendship and solidarity is key to Onyesonwu being free to become who she is meant to be, alongside her strength of character and self-belief. Mwita struggles with how strong Onyesonwu is. Her strength is threatening to the pride of both Mwita and Aro, but Onyesonwu doesn’t care. She holds no truck with gender getting in her way, either in developing her supernatural powers or in her relationships.

The book is a quest to put right ancient wrongs, to make reparation, to rewrite a twisted culture’s holy book. Onyesonwu is both sorceress and teenager, a woman of incredible power who has to learn how to control that power. The book is about love, about being seen and accepted by those who love you and how that can empower a person to become who they are meant to be. Rooted as it is in African traditions, the magic and fantasy is far more interesting than the swords and sorcery of Western literature. Onyesonwu is a deliciously feisty character as well. You should read it.

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