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Review: Rosewater by Tade Thompson

By / May 22, 2017 / no comments

RosewaterTo describe Rosewater as another alien invasion story (as it is on the cover, for instance) is, strictly speaking, accurate; but it is wildly misleading. For a start, it is not so much an invasion as an infestation.

True, there is an amorphous blob, which acquires the name Wormwood, that crashes with devastating effect into Hyde Park in London. Wormwood is not the first of its kind to arrive on Earth, there had been two previous visitations, but on both occasions the alien died. But this time Wormwood doesn’t die, even when attacked by the British Army. In response, it digs down deep into the planet’s crust, and there makes its way to rural Nigeria where it surfaces and constructs a dome about itself. Once a year, a part of the dome opens and anyone close by is cured of whatever ails them. This is not an entirely beneficial process, sometimes the healing can go wrong and people end up with grotesque deformities: a vastly inflated goiter, for instance, or an extra limb. The process can even reanimate the dead, though without restoring them to sentient life. Nevertheless, more people are cured than are deformed, which is why a city called Rosewater has now grown up encircling the dome.

But Wormwood is only the most obvious manifestation of the alien arrival on Earth. Far more plentiful and more mysterious are the xenoforms. These are microscopic alien particles, somewhat resembling fungal spores, that may be living or may be artificial, and that have been seeded throughout the Earth’s atmosphere so that they are now inescapable, though most people remain unaware of them. What they are and what they are for is not really understood, but their purpose seems to involve the gathering and disseminating of information.

A rare group of people are sensitive to these xenoforms, and through them have acquired seemingly supernatural abilities: the ability to read minds, to trace people and objects, to communicate with each other within a different reality known as xenospace.

So much for the invasion. It forms the necessary background for the novel, the centre around which everything else circles, and as is the way with these things the background comes into the foreground towards the climax of the novel. But the invasion is not what the book is about. The book is about coming to terms with having been invaded on a personal level, having been infected by the hangers on of invasion, coming to terms with how you have changed and how your understanding of the world you grew up in has changed. It is the story of Kaaro, one of those who is sensitive to the xenoforms, perhaps the most sensitive of all. But the Kaaro who can read minds, find things, is not what he wants to be, not what he is equipped to be. Because of his abilities, Kaaro is constantly being pushed by circumstances and by those around him, to be a hero or a villain, but he isn’t willing or able to be either of those things.

We never actually glimpse what Kaaro might have been, we only see what he has been turned into; but we know he would have been very different. As a child he discovers his ability to find things (actually, though he doesn’t realise this at first, an ability to see into people’s minds and learn where they put the things), and, because it is the easy option, he uses the ability to steal. That is, until he is betrayed by his own mother, barely escapes a mob, and witnesses a close friend being killed by the mob. Cast off from his family, he lives an edgy existence until he is recruited by S45, a section of the state intelligence service.

It is worth noting that this new Kaaro, exiled from his own mother, embarks on a career of what seems like sexual predation, except that most of his attempted conquests come to nothing. And he is particularly drawn to women who are more self-assured, more competent, and it would seem slightly older than he is: his boss at S45, the so-called “Bicycle Girl” that is the object of his first assignment, and Aminat who will actually become his girlfriend. It is never stated, but I get the impression that Kaaro is more in search of a mother than a lover. He is weak-willed, cowardly, often petty, and most determinedly not the stuff of which heroes are made. It is one of the strengths of this novel that Kaaro remains true to this febrile character throughout: no matter how often the mantle of hero is thrust at him, he never takes it on.

The narrative moves back and forth between Rosewater in 2066 and events in Lagos and elsewhere ten years or more before. Though the aliens are an often unacknowledged presence throughout the story, the focus is upon how humans have been changed, and how they react to the changing nature of their world. In this future America has cut itself off from the rest of the world, so that the few Americans left out in the rest of the world are confined to refugee camps. Without American backing, previously dominant nations have lost their authority. Countries like Nigeria, therefore, are starting to flex their muscles, marked by a rise in authoritarianism on both the national and the local scale, and a growing intolerance for dissent. As the novel progresses, S45 finds its energies more and more directed against those that the state perceives as internal enemies. But in the main the mass of the population carry on much as they have always done, with perhaps a slight up-tick in criminality.

Kaaro’s career, therefore, opens up the underbelly of this curious and disordered society as he moves from infiltrating criminal gangs to tracking down the symbol of discontent that is the Bicycle Girl to assisting in the interrogation of people who may be terrorists but who are more likely just dissidents. All of these assignments involve an exploration of and a growing understanding of his particular talents as a sensitive. But then he learns that other sensitives, those he trained with, those he has met and worked with along the way, are dying. As he tries to juggle the complications arising from his new relationship with Aminat – a sense of responsibility that he finds strange and unnerving, the violent attentions of her gang boss former husband, the mystery of her brother who is kept chained in a luxurious house in Lagos, the fact that his employers at S45 consistently warn him off her – he suddenly finds he has to discover why his colleagues are dying and whether he might be next. And that’s a puzzle that could end up with him having to go face-to-face with the alien Wormwood, and that’s something Kaaro definitely doesn’t want to do.

Thompson’s second novel is assured, detailed, compelling. The strong plot never clashes with the vivid characterisation and the remarkable sense of place. In other words, the central mystery of Rosewater is why it hasn’t turned up on all of the award shortlists.

Buy Rosewater on Amazon.

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