March 2016 (3/12)
A Year of Books by Suyi Davies
The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
Published by DAW/Hodder (May 2015)
240 pages, paperback
Welcome friends! How was March? Who wasn’t glad to get a break from the hustle and bustle and spend two whole public holidays doing whatever you liked? Who? No one? Guessed as much.
So, this month, we’re here to talk about Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix.
The Book of Phoenix is a prequel to Nnedi’s Who Fears Death (2010), a World Fantasy Award winner. Both novels feature strong women as protagonists, determined to set right the wrongs that have been laid upon them, both personally, and on a grander scale.
Phoenix was grown and raised among other genetic experiments in New York’s Tower 7. She is an “accelerated woman”—only two years old but with the body and mind of an adult, Phoenix’s abilities far exceed those of a normal human. When her romantic interest, Saeed, another biologically altered human of Tower 7 witnesses something so terrible that he takes his own life, Phoenix finally begins to realize that her home is really her prison, and she becomes desperate to escape. But Phoenix’s escape, and her destruction of Tower 7, is just the beginning of her story. Before her story ends, Phoenix will travel from the United States to Africa and back, changing the entire course of humanity’s future.
Fantastic premise, eh? But hey, listen. I have a secret you’re not going to believe.
*BEWARE! SPOILERS AHEAD!*
CHARACTERS + VOICE
So, here’s the secret: I didn’t finish the book.
Yes, I’m writing a review for a book I didn’t finish. Yes, I have perfectly good reasons; because I just could not finish it (I tried mahn; you have no idea), and also, because I don’t think I needed to finish it in order to write this review. There’s little else that surprises you after you’re 70% into a story.
Phoenix is a strong and brilliant character that shines throughout the book, strong enough to carry the whole novel. Most other characters though, I’m sorry, fell flat once the rug was pulled out from under them. From Saeed and Mmuo, Phoenix’s Tower 7 friends; to Kofi, her second love interest; Phoenix’s father “the winged man”; and Bumi, the Yoruba-American who worked for the Big Eye. In fact, the characters who resonated most with me were fleeting characters, like the Muslim man, Berihun and his wife who helped her after her escape from Tower 7. While information about pasts and motivations were provided as the basis for some of the characters’ actions, they usually were superficial and many actions felt contrived as a result. Reader empathy became hard to evoke. Maybe this is just me, I don’t know, but I believe the characterisation was the weakest part of this book.
If you’ve read Who Fears Death, then you’ll notice how Phoenix’s language/voice is just as angry as Onyesonwu’s. Granted, this is a book about exploitation, identity, revenge, and sacrifice, so yeah, lots of anger and stuff. But methinks a good portion of it wasn’t compulsory. The most enjoyable parts for me were those where the action was less driven but more organic, less bitter and dramatic but more laden with reasoning. Maybe because the book is written in first person, things came through this way, but I think conveyance of these messages didn’t require a voice that loud and angry. My tuppence.
The novel’s opening was real cool. Saeed, Phoenix’s love interest commits suicide, and Phoenix attempts an escape from Tower 7, which succeeds, except…she dies. Then, she rises from the ashes, like a true Phoenix. Great first couple of sequences.
From there on however, the book starts to feel haphazardly put together, and it becomes more difficult to draw connecting lines between things: events, ideas, motivations. The middle of the book feels quite scattershot, because it meanders without evident reason. I found little to compel me to keep reading other than wanting to see where Phoenix’s quest took her, pride (that I started something and had to finish it), and of course, this review. The narrative became loose once the opening was over, and that didn’t work for me.
(You know, I realise I’ve had these same matters arising with other Nnedi books I’ve read, and I guess her style just isn’t to my taste, so this is not an indictment of the author herself, who is actually quite charming and intriguing in person).
The book’s scenes move from New York’s Tower 7 to the streets of a futuristic New York that has become tropical, to Phoenix’s flight across the sea, to a small village in Ghana, and back to New York. Tropical New York was quite interesting, though much wasn’t told about it. I also liked the scenes set in the village, although I wasn’t too sure about the portrayal of a village whose people could take photographs with portables, yet lived under thatched roofs. Still, the setting felt fresh and different, and that kinda worked for me. Nnedi’s settings usually do, because she’s quite imaginative when it comes to these things.
Of course, the themes in this book were the strongest things about it (the common denominator across many African books, as we’ve seen through experience), and The Book of Phoenix overflows with them. Colonialism. African Identity. Black Power. White Privilege, Exploitation and Suppression. Revenge. Sacrifice. Love.
Phoenix personifies these themes at various points in the book. Her love for Saeed permeates everything, even if Saeed dies in the first few chapters. In the village, she kills a white man trying to rape a village local, at the expense of being found and her identity being revealed. At the book’s end, she destroys the earth and re-writes history.
This is a very political book, that preaches, tells the world that Africans know exactly who they are, no matter where they were born or created. That Africans are not weak or fodder, but are capable of changing the world, of being anything and everything just like their European, American, Asian and Australian counterparts. It’s written in a take-it-or-leave-it manner, and since Phoenix does change the world in the end, the book also proves. The themes are in no way subtle, being strong and heavy-handed throughout, but are as impactful as they were meant to be in the end.
As said in the beginning, Phoenix is no subtle character. She says “I am Phoenix” a lot. Maybe too much. There was a good dose of telling in the book in general, so I’m not sure the style was quite to my taste.
Phoenix also goes on a lot of monologues which at times feel like authorial influence, like the author bled onto the page via the character. While this might be fantastic for different reasons, I usually do not care much for it, so it kinda put me off as well.
Again, just my tuppence.
The Book of Phoenix is a Strong Book thematically, but an Okay Book story- and execution-wise. It was equal parts interesting and equal parts frustrating, because while it does explore a fresh premise and many strong themes, the execution was a tad heavy-handed and I felt like a lot was being shoved down my throat.
WHERE YOU CAN GET IT
Actually, this book is a tad difficult to get because it was not specially released in Nigeria/Africa, so every purchase has to be an import. Sorry, guys.
- Amazon (hardcover, paperback, kindle, Audible): Because, too much dollars
- Book Buzz/Ake Festival Bookshop, Abeokuta/Lagos: Again, I got mine at the festival in November 2015. Nnedi brought them herself, so I’m guessing it’s quite difficult to get anywhere else in Nigeria. November 2016’s not so far anyway for the next festival, though…
- Amab Books, Minna, Niger State (@amabbooks): Actually, I believe what Amab does is order such a book from America or the UK and deliver to you wherever you are in Nigeria, so you might get it a bit above the usual, but it should be worth it.
These are the avenues I know for now. If you’ve got any more, you know what to do. Drop ‘em like they’re hot.
In April, we’ll be doing a South African author. NADIA DAVIDS with AN IMPERFECT BLESSING. Coming next on A Year of Books.
Until then, folks. Keep reading.
Suyi Davies Okungbowa.
Words Are Work … and fun too!