God of Mercy, Okezie Nwọka (Astra House 97801-66260-0-838, $27.00, 304pp, hc) November 2021.
Content warning: child abuse.
Supreme beings, elders, and ancestors clash in Okezie Nwọka’s God of Mercy, a decolonized, magical realist novel about a young girl named Ijeọma who can fly. Uncertain if her power is a curse or a blessing from feuding gods, a cast of bitter family members, sage elders, and violent pastors attempt to uncover what her power means for their livelihoods while Ijeọma seeks this deeply troubling answer in exile. The power in this novel lies in protagonist Ijeọma, who seeks out her truth for herself.
With discerning dialogue and elegant prose, Nwọka chronicles the rise, decline, and resistance of Ijeọma’s village of Ichulu through the tale of her imprisonment in a Christian church that claims to “save” witches and pagans (in other words: vulnerable children). Here, scrawled into the pages of a diary, Ijeọma wrestles with her gods and confronts inner demons to understand her true purpose. While this tremendous work is most readily described as magical realism or as a work of fable, God of Mercy is too powerful to stay within the confines of a single genre. Split into three parts, the novel moves from Ijeọma’s childhood village, to her interactions with the exiled, ending with her experiences in Pastor Nwosu’s church.
Nwọka draws on both colonized and uncolonized Igbo cultures, ancestors, and deities to narrate Ijeọma’s quiet and steady strength. Ijeọma is a sweet, curious girl who is considered cursed by some for her inability to speak. Her kindness and willingness to communicate with the exiled osu of her village leads to her being imprisoned in a Christian church, where “witches” and “pagans” are forcibly converted and conformed into Western, supremacist imaginations of God in the “Manifestation Quarters.”
The introduction of racially based, Christian missionaries is historically accurate and thus tremendously disturbing, particularly in Pastor Nwosu’s Precious Word Ministries church. Here, Pastor Nwosu casts out “demons” in children before his congregation. Unfortunately, the Manifestation Quarters are a ruse for sadistic violence, and for the pastor to assert his own understanding of God. Here, children are beaten for questioning Christianity’s “light” and Paganism’s darkness. Intelligent discourse and questions on syncretic religious practices are also beaten out of them.
This is perhaps the first glimpse we get into Ijeọma’s inner strength. Exile is one of the worst fates to befall a person in her world. Becoming osu, or outcast, results in a complete separation from all people have ever known. Not only are they seen as unclean, but they are no longer allowed to break kola with their families, nor are they allowed to enter the village. Ijeọma manages to challenge all of that without uttering a single word. Within her diary, she still prays to her Supreme Being, in search of mercy and purpose in a world intent to beat any sense of self out of her,
It seems clear that Nwọka approached this book with reverence – from the detailed cast of characters listed in the book, to the intricacy of the dialogue, God of Mercy is a tale of tragedy and ultimate mercy found within a young girl’s honest and startling questions to her Supreme Being, Chineke (also known as Chukwu or chi). Written in verse that recalls the rhythm of fables, Nwọka eloquently details the perseverance and thriving of a young woman descended from a people who have resisted colonization at every turning point in history. The novel escapes expectation as well with its ending – initially cardboard-like dialogue eventually grows into extended metaphors for coloniality and disaster, with characters slowly but surely having life breathed into them.
Ichulu is almost a character in itself, also stuck between the clashes of deities. While it stands strong in the face of colonialism, Ichulu is constantly trying to understand its identity for itself, and not just as a mirror of nearby colonized villages. For this traditional village, Nwọka averts a Western gaze by insisting that the village decides its fate for itself, and not because of an outside savior.
God of Mercy is a heavy book, but it is not designed to make a reader suffer, or realize the horrors of colonialism and missionary trips. The depictions of violence against children were difficult to read through, but at no point did the violence seem overtly graphic or designed to simply get a reaction from the reader. Rather, each scene was intentionally placed to make a larger point about wisdom and knowledge. I felt that the ending appropriately balanced grief, chaos, and redemption with the joyful youth that was robbed from Ijeọma and many of her fellow exiles in earlier chapters of the book.
Beyond Ijeọma’s mysterious powers, God of Mercy is about a village’s evolving wisdom, and the power of mercy and purpose discovered in exile.
Maya C. James is a graduate of the Lannan Fellows Program at Georgetown University, and full-time student at Harvard Divinity School. Her work has appeared in Star*Line, Strange Horizons, FIYAH, Soar: For Harriet, and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center Blog, among others. She was recently long listed for the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize (2019), and featured on a feminist speculative poetry panel at the 2019 CD Wright Women Writer’s Conference. Her work focuses primarily on Afrofuturism, and imagining sustainable futures for at-risk communities. You can find more of her work here, and follow her on Twitter: @mayawritesgood.
This review and more like it in the November 2021 issue of Locus.
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