Friday, June 10, 2016

Currently Reading (10)

Riffing off Ekow Eshun's memoir, Black Gold of the Sun, Ellah Wakatama Allrey notes that 'African children of the diaspora have a unique affinity with superheroes. It is a sense of belonging elsewhere, a longing for a special power that will both set them apart from the society that they live in and ensure them admiration and acceptance.' Nnedi Okorafor's The Book of Phoenix is a fierce inversion of that observation, the story of the birth and radicalisation of a self-styled supervillain framed by the story of the discovery of her autobiographical memoir in a distant post-apocalyptic future.

Although it acts as a prequel to Okorafor's award-winning novel Who Fears Death, The Book of Phoenix works as a standalone novel: the confession of Phoenix Akore, a speciMen genetically engineered by the shadowy organisation Big Eye and caged with other experimental speciMen in a tower in partially-flooded near-future Manhattan. A prodigy aged just three whose accelerated growth gives her the appearance of a forty-year-old woman, Phoenix has educated herself by absorbing knowledge in thousands of books, has a titanium-alloy skeleton, can stimulate the growth of plants, raise her body temperature to searing heat, and regenerate after self-immolation. After the apparent suicide of her boyfriend, Phoenix destroys the tower by encouraging the tree at its heart to grow to enormous size, regenerates from ashes and develops wings, and heads for Africa with a seed discovered amongst the roots of the giant tree. But the Africans she meets are as exploited as the speciMen, Big Eye operatives track her down, and she returns to America under her own terms, where she reunites with her boyfriend and a third survivor of the fall of her tower, and embarks on a campaign to destroy Big Eye.

There's an immense amount of collateral damage, as in all proper superhero stories, but there's no real opposition. Although another speciMen is a black version of Superman, he's Phoenix's mentor rather than her opponent, teaching her how to slip through space and time, and Big Eye proves to be a mostly impotent enemy. But the core of the novel is not the usual conflict between superheroes and shadowy organisations; it's Phoenix's education, and her anger at colonial exploitation of Africa and her peoples. There are explicit references to slave ships, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and the immortal cell line of Henrietta Lacks, kleptocratic governments in former African colonies, and much more, and parts of the narrative can be, rightly, uncomfortable reading for those of us who've benefited, however tangentially, from various forms of exploitation.

The fast-moving narrative is crammed with ideas which aren't always given as much depth as they deserve, but as with Okorafor's equally crammed Lagoon, it gives off a glow of vital exuberance, Phoenix's Biblical wrath is tempered by passages both tender and reflective, and the story of its discovery in a desert cave which bookends it reframes it with profoundly dark irony. Despite the fierce, violent velocity of its narrative, this short novel lingers and continues to grow in the mind long after its telling.


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