Tade Thompson, Rosewater, Apex Publications, 2016.
Aliens arrived on Earth and... "Wait!" will you tell me, "I've already read this. Like, a thousand times! Not to mention countless formulaic American movies... Why would I read it?" Because it's far removed from your typical "Aliens arrived on Earth" story and so well written that it'd be a real pity not to read it...
Kaaro is a sensitive: it means he can access the xenosphere where he reads other people's minds. He works in a bank to protect customers from others sensitives: no one wants to have their PIN codes plucked from their thoughts. But this job is just a cover because he actually works for the Nigerian government. His city, Rosewater, is built around a mysterious alien dome that appeared on Earth some twenty years ago.
We follow Kaaro in a few non linear threads from his past and his present. The storytelling is more like a tapestry slowly being woven rather than a straightforward narrative. Rosewater slowly unfolds and requires patience from the reader, but it is balanced with a fair share of action scenes, and lots of tantalising mysteries (1) that are revealed as you go along.
So, on the paper you end up with a non linear story with telepathy, kind of zombies, aliens on Earth, governmental agencies and mysterious mysteries. "Throw in the kitchen sink too, why don't you!" are you thinking. But actually no: the rigorous world and plot building Rosewater has leads to an ending where everything makes sense. The ending may remind the reader of where Xenogenesis by Octavia Butler starts, but with different options and different choices. Where Butler creates hope at a tremendous cost, Thompson replies with a different answer.
In the story, some things are just hinted at but convey the feel of the wider world, others are slowly explained, others are based on Nigerian current society (2). They all create a believable complex world.
Kaaro's characterisation is intelligently done, layer by layer revealed with the non linear storytelling. He isn't an all guns a-blazin' character: Thompson chose to make him an anti-hero and it's easy to identify with some of his choices. There is in him something of Bérenger, the main character in Ionesco's play Rhinoceros (with one major difference that'd be too spoilerish to reveal). Sadly, most of the other characters are much less developed. But, it is Kaaro's story that is the focus of the novel and the others are just supporting characters (3).
Rosewater is a science-fiction novel that doesn't just re-use old tropes: it makes them fit a tightly wrought story which asks again, and in a talented way, the question of otherness and humanity, and what is worth fighting for. Here is to hoping Rosewater will turn up on many 2017 awards shortlists!
The author's website.
(1) If you are as spoilerphobic as I am, avoid reading the blurb on the cover... And now I've said that you want to do just that, don't you? Don't, trust me.
(2) If your knowledge of Nigerian current society is limited to the few headlines that make it into international newspapers, don't worry: it's enough.
(3) ... Even if a character says the exact opposite in the novel, as if Thompson had anticipated that readers would think that!
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