Thoughts: Wer Fürchtet den Tod, by Nnedi Okorafor, translated by Claudia Kern

Right, let’s skip the apology for taking so long and just assume it at the beginning of every post, OK? OK.

Another German book, but this time with a twist – it was translated FROM English INTO German! The English title is Who Fears Death. To everyone who read it in English, I apologise in advance for anything I misunderstood because of my imperfect German! I haven’t read the English version.

Also there are spoilers coming!

I was really nervous about this one – it’s a brick, and not just a brick but a sci fi brick, and not just a sci fi brick but a post-apocalyptic African sci fi brick, and my knowledge of the African continent is embarrassingly embryonic, and combined with my child-German I was legitimately worried that it would impair my understanding.

But happy news! Wer Fürchtet den Tod is really clearly written, and the language didn’t impair my understanding. I have skimmed a few Goodreads reviews just to make sure I didn’t miss anything major, and there are a few complaints about the simplicity of the language, but you know what? It really helped me out, so I’m grateful for it.

It occupies this really weird space, half post-nuclear war and half pure fairytale. The scenery and world are very detailed and the images strong, but there are pure fairytale, almost magical details. The main character, Onyesonwu, is a shapeshifter, and her mother can’t speak any higher than a whisper since she was raped (and Onyesonwu conceived), which I couldn’t help seeing symbolism in. The way a lot of the tech is described means it basically functions in the narrative as magic, even when it’s based on real technology. For instance, the device they use to get water from the ambient air is described in the same way as a fantasy novel would describe something magical, and yet something about it recalls (to this white Brit) inventions you’d see shared in Facebook video adverts, designed to make life easier in the developing world. You know the type of thing? Some of the tech had that type of feel – real and rooted to the setting. The book straddled a really interesting line.

It deals with weaponised rape, child soldiers, light-skin/dark-skin discrimination, structural misogyny and FGM, so it’s not an easy or lighthearted read (I learned a lot of words, LET ME TELL YOU), but it’s a powerful one. The way Okorafor deals with FGM in particular is really complex and nuanced. I don’t think any one book should bear the responsibility of being the be-all and end-all of debate about an issue, but I’ve never seen FGM dealt with ever at all in spec fic, and Okorafor has made an incredible contribution to that conversation which needs to be had.

Firstly, FGM is a coming-of-age ritual in the place Onyesonwu and her mother have ended up after her (beautifully drawn) childhood in the desert, and as an outsider both in terms of being new to the village and being mixed race and therefore automatically despised, Onyesonwu wants to belong as much as she can and she sneaks out of her house against her mother’s wishes to participate in the ritual. The other girls who have come of age in the same year as her are all bound together with her by this ritual in a strong friendship. It’s almost a community-building or reinforcing thing, and the village elder women make it look really attractive too, offering a safe space to discuss sex and also taking on themselves the protection of Binta, one of the girls, who has been repeatedly raped by her father.

But it doesn’t last – their intervention with Binta’s father is ineffectual, and the ritual has magically (literally by magic, I mean) destroyed all pleasure in sex for the girls until they marry, which they only realise later. In the end, the injustice of placing the burden of community morals on the unconsenting girls is unignorable, as is the violation of the way in which it’s done.

I do agree with some of the other reviews’ complaints about the middle – the journey does wander a bit, and petty squabbling between the characters overshadows the bigger picture a few times. The end gets a bit mad, but that’s something I enjoy in an ending, to be honest, so your mileage may vary.

Definitely recommend this one, both for the story and for any German learners looking for some practice!

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