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.
Y’know what … on paper, this shouldn’t really work. I mean, it’s about chess. Now, that’s not to say that’s chess isn’t an exciting game; I watched a few matches on Channel4 a few years back, and I have to tell you it’s the most exciting and passionate commentary I’ve seen for any sport. But still … it is chess, and I while I could imagine a ninety-minute movie working, I wasn’t sure about a seven-episode mini-series.
Well, shows what I know. If anything, it was too short.
With the help of the odd flashback, we follow the colourful life of prodigy Beth Harmon – from her early years being taught chess by the surly janitor in the basement of the orphanage where she grew up, proving her genius in the male-dominated arena of competition chess, and international stardom as a master of the beautiful game (no hang on, that’s football, isn’t it).
Of course, genius has its price, and emotionally-repressed Beth, played brilliantly by Anya Taylor-Joy, is unable to deal with the loss of two mothers, her growing fame, and the demands of being at the top of the intensely competitive sport.
And of course, the drink and drug addiction doesn’t help … or maybe it does … not sure …
Okay, a confession: I thought about dropping the book, a couple of times. It’s not that it’s not well-written, because it is (one of the best I’ve read actually). It’s not because it isn’t relevant; it’s been relevant for the past three hundred years. No, the problem is that I’ve been reading a lot (and I do mean A LOT) about race over the past year, so when I started Akala’s book, I think I started with a few preconcieved notions about what I was getting into, and for the most part I wasn’t surprised: it’s a brilliantly-researched, honest, opinionated, and occasionally bitter read from someone who’s elevated himself out of a place where white privileged society told him he belonged. I think the problem was that I was expecting the kind of jaw-dropping revelations that Isabel Wilkerson came up with in Caste, and I’m sure that there would’ve been a few, if I’d read this one first.