Review: Rosewater

Tade Thompson’s second novel, Rosewater, the first in a trilogy set in a near-future Nigeria, won the Clarke award this year, which was mostly why I bought it. Its protagonist Kaaro is a “sensitive”: he’s telepathic and he spends his days fighting off psychic attacks for a major bank. Once upon a time, sensitives like him start dying of a mysterious illness; in the course of his subsequent investigations we’re taken via flashbacks into his past working for shadowy government agencies, using his abilities to gain valuable intelligence.

Kaaro lives in a city called Rosewater, which has grown up around an alien biodome which opens every year for twenty or thirty minutes, healing everyone in the vicinity of disease, injury and sometimes mental illness. Sometimes this healing goes wrong, which is how dead people get resurrected as mindless zombies. (Happily, the zombies do not contribute significantly to the plot; they’re a clue of sorts, not drivers of the narrative in their own right.)

I desperately wanted to spend more time in Rosewater, get to know its train lines and its streets, as it seems we’re going to in an early chapter, when Kaaro encounters and fights a zombie on a train. But Rosewater is, generically speaking, an SF thriller, which means it doesn’t really ever stop moving to look at the scenery, as it were.

I don’t read a lot of thrillers, don’t get on with them that well, and for me this forward momentum comes at the expense of the novel’s ideas, which is what everyone cites as the reason for its Clarke win. One of the things Rosewater is doing is using alien invasion as a way of thinking about the invasion of the self, of one’s subjectivity: Kaaro’s ability turns out to be linked to the alien dome at the heart of Rosewater, which works upon the human body and brain, literally invading one’s very self. Kaaro’s telepathy is another way the novel blurs boundaries between selves; as is, finally, its flashbacks to various points in Kaaro’s past, revealing multiple different versions of Our Protagonist in a way that, for this reader at least, becomes a little confusing.

But none of this boundary-blurring, so it seemed to me, is well-served by the thriller container it’s poured into: there’s just not enough time for these ideas to be developed fully. Put another way, form and content don’t seem to be working together very harmoniously. Kaaro’s head is also not a very pleasant place to spend time: he’s a terrible sexist, and although other characters do call him out on it, it’s still kind of exhausting to deal with as a reader?

Really, though, I think this is just one of those times where book and reader don’t quite meet in the middle, and it’s not particularly the fault of either.

Content note for gore/body horror.

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