This is another one of the those outstanding books that takes a global injustice and condenses it down to lives of a handful of people.
The American Civil War has ended, the Confederacy is in ruins, and the slaves are free. They have no homes, no livelihoods and no land. Worse, they’re now facing the wrath of Southerners who are looking to vent their shame and frustration on the people with less power than themselves … Negroes.
The story is about two brothers: Landry and Prentiss – born into slavery and now emancipated, they leave the plantation they’ve known their whole lives to search for a place of their own and their mother, sold and taken away from them when they were still children.
They don’t get very far; striking an agreement with an elderly landowner – who seems incredibly estranged from his wife, his son, and life in general – to help him to cultivate what little land he has left in return for a fair wage to help carry them further on their journey. As one would expect, the spectre of racism and injustice is never far behind …
I finished reading Luster on new year’s eve, then I had sit down for a couple of days to think hard on what I thought about it.
I mean I liked it, loved it in fact, but I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Is it literary fiction, literary erotica, commercial literary erotic fiction?
Anyway, I have hard enough job genrefying my own work, so I probably shouldn’t worry too much about pigeonholing someone else’s . . .
The story is told from the raw, stream of consciousness of Edie, an editorial coordinator for a children’s book publisher. She has no money, her dreams are worn hollow, and she can’t see a future any different from the life she has now. So Edie tries to fill the void in her life by having semi-casual sex with just about every man (and one woman) in the office (even with someone who works in the IT department if you can believe it). After she’s fired (it was always going to happen) she focusses her energies on the affair she’s having with Eric, a middle-aged man with a strangely accommodating wife, Rebecca, and an adopted daughter, Akila. How far does this affair go?
Well, far enough that she moves in with them . . .
It’s a bit of everything this book: part dystopian sci-fi, part urban fantasy, and part social commentary. You’d think that trying to blend all this together into a single novel would turn into a hot mess.
Well, no it doesn’t.
Set in a future Africa after a global disaster, Who Fears Death is the story – the long and harrowing story – of Onyesonwu Ubaid-Ogundimu, a child born of rape who undertakes a journey to become a sorcerer so that she can avenge the rape of her mother.
That alone is a lot to unwrap, but as I mentioned, this book is very much a social commentary wrapped in a fantasy novel, so along the way we also take a good, long, graphic look at incest, child abuse, female circumcision, weaponised rape, war, mutilation and my personal bugbear this year: the caste system. This is some bold writing: Okorafor doesn’t spare anyone’s fragility and that’s a good thing because it makes the book realistic, gritty, compelling and thought-provoking, stark and unsanitized. Some of it makes for uncomfortable reading, but don’t skip it.