Rosewater is a town on the edge. A community formed around the edges of a mysterious alien biodome, its residents comprise the hopeful, the hungry and the helpless – people eager for a glimpse inside the dome or a taste of its rumored healing powers.
Kaaro is a government agent with a criminal past. He has seen inside the biodome, and doesn’t care to again — but when something begins killing off others like himself, Kaaro must defy his masters to search for an answer, facing his dark history and coming to a realization about a horrifying future.
Tade Thompson’s Rosewater is hard to categorise. Is this dystopia? Horror? Post-apocalypse or a slowpocalypse? Or a strange, unique amalgamation of all of them? I’m still having a hard time pinpointing it, yet it doesn’t really matter what to call it; what matters is that it is an interesting and complicated book. Rosewater tells a story that both grabbed me and didn’t let go, but also made me really uncomfortable.
What grabbed me immediately was its setting. Rosewater, Lagos, and Nigeria at large are captivating and the incorporation of SF elements was fascinating and a strong piece of world-building. Because in this future, the aliens have landed and it is unclear whether they have come in peace. The creation of the xenosphere through their arrival and the explanation of what it was and the way people become ‘psychic’ or sensitive was rather cool. The fact that it is basically a fungal infection and that it just affects certain people certain ways, lifting them up into what seems to be a different plane was just freaking awesome.
An aspect of the novel I found wonderful and perplexing at the same time was the way the narrative was structured. Thompson braids several timelines together. They are defined at the start of each chapter with the place, year and the addition of Then or Now. Interspersed between them are interludes, which jump around the timeline. This makes for an interesting way to tell the story, revealing the history of this world and explaining elements of the world building at the relevant point in the main timeline, yet at the same time can work disorienting. Sometimes it can be hard to follow, especially when also incorporating the xenosphere, which is disorienting by nature. Especially when I had been away from the story, I found I had to reorient myself on where we were and what was happening, more so than I usually have to.
The alien(s) were fantastic and absolutely terrifying in their regard for humanity and their cavalier attitude about invading Earth. I also found the way the different regions in the world reacted to the appearance of a dome telling. The British cordon off the area where the alien(s) landed and tried to destroy it, the Americans just go completely dark and avoid all contact with the rest of the world, while in Nigeria the people just try to co-exist with it. What does seem to be the same everywhere, is how the sensitives are treated the world over. They are considered other, as dangerous, as tools to use and are in continuing danger from those who fear them. They are seen as modern day witches.
There is a lot of violence and violation, both physical and mental. The appearance of the reanimates, those who were healed by the dome but were beyond saving and turned into zombie-like beings, exacerbates the overt violence of the thugs and soldiers in the streets. There is also the more covert violence of what is happening to the sensitives and the attacks upon Kaaro’s psyche. The violation is mostly mental, the way people’s minds are invaded and read or stripped, something we see in the interrogations Kaaro does as part of his S45 work. Another aspect of this are the mind loops Kaaro puts people in, such as Shesan, where they are put in a certain memory or even a made-up experience and forced to relive that time and time again. This is a form of torture, one, which even Kaaro realises, goes too far.
I liked Kaaro’s voice; he’s flawed and upfront about that. Yet I found it uncomfortable to be in his head. His attitude towards women is bad and I found it hard to deal with at times. He looks at women as objects, considering whether he wants them or not as being their most distinguishing feature. This is most visible in his treatment of his S45 superior Mrs Femi Alaagomeji. He seems to resent the fact that she as a woman is his superior and in no way interested in him other than as an operative, as a tool to accomplish S45’s goals. The only woman who he seemingly considers as a person in herself and as a friend just for who she is, is his fellow sensitive Bola. The two strongest female characters — apart from Femi — are Kaaro’s girlfriend Aminat and Oyin Da, a revolutionary who leads the Lijad. I really liked Aminat, though she remains somewhat of a cipher, being more a means to an end, in introducing certain characters, than one with a fully round arc of her own. Oyin Da, was also interesting and felt more like a mystic presence and I’m still not sure whether the Lijad wasn’t halfway a supernatural phenomenon.
Rosewater came highly recommended and I was really looking forward to reading it. And while I certainly enjoyed reading the book, it also left me conflicted — I enjoyed reading it, I really admire the world-building and narrative structure Thompson created, but I’m not sure I liked it? It’s weird, every time I pick the book up to check something the writing hooks me, yet when I think about it at a distance, I feel as if it is just okay. That’s a new thing for me. Usually my feelings about a book are pretty defined: I either love it, hate it or am ‘meh’ about it, not all at the same time. In the end, I do think Rosewater is a worthwhile read and I would recommend it to those looking for a thought-provoking SF story.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.