“Riot Baby” isn’t really about Ella and her magical “Thing”, nor is it about, as the synopsis suggests, the revolution for racial equality in this barely alternate and vaguely more futuristic version of America. I say that because the events that define Kev—the actual Riot Baby—like the LA riot of 1992, and the police brutality aimed primarily at Black communities is all very real, and in Ella and Kev’s world, only taken to a slightly bigger level by the futuristic technology and weaponry the police use to terrorize these communities. This book is really about the anger felt with structural racism and brutality shown through the lens of an intimate family view of those who suffer under such conditions. Ella, her mom, and brother Kev are all just trying to live, but that becomes almost impossible with how America treats its Black citizens. This book is written in such a beautiful, raw, and angry tone which demands readers to confront systematic racial injustice head on. This novella evokes so many emotions and is crafted in really a magnificent way—Onyebuchi is a masterful writer! But story wise? I had a really hard time connecting.
Ella’s Thing, her super powers, are incredible and seem pretty limitless, and because of that, they aren’t really defined. Ella can kind of do anything—she can burn cities to the ground if she wants to. But she’s trapped in her own kind of mental prison fueled by the anger she feels and injustice she sees and experiences, that she can’t/doesn’t really DO anything beyond seeing other’s past and future. But with that kind of power I’d expect her Thing to impact the plot of the book in some way, but it doesn’t, not really, outside of being used to zoom out of this otherwise very personal view to show the reader it’s not just this family that is treated unfairly. Plus the timeline jumps around a lot and the POV shifts pretty rapidly sometimes between Ella and Kev. So I spent a lot of this book trying to interpret Ella’s Thing, and figure out if what was happening was a vision of the past, present, future, or something that was actually happening to Ella or Kev.
The portrayal of this slightly alternate and futuristic world is brutal and unyielding. The language is raw and full of emotion. So many scenes are incredibly detailed and extremely uncomfortable, that it really encapsulates Ella’s rage and passes it on to the reader. And while painful, it’s incredible. The way the author structures these long, run on sentences to capture the raw emotions of the characters, even of those that Ella sees the future for, is an important gut-punch to be sure. But this novella is more a collection of experiences loosely tied together by Ella and Kev. The story is their survival in a system meant to tear them down, lock them away, and kill them. Ella’s Thing is a bit unnecessary to the plot and while really cool, detracted, I felt, from the authentic experiential aspects of the book.
The messages in this book are important, and the care and craft that the author uses to bring them about are great, but I think I was expecting more of a “traditional” story when I first started reading this, something more science-fiction and fantasy like some of the authors other books, then the literary fiction this turned out to be. Which probably means I wasn’t in the correct headspace to maybe enjoy or grasp everything this novella packs within its pages. So don’t let my 3.5 star rating fool you, I would absolutely recommend this to literary fiction fans, the subject matter is as timely as it is poignant and powerful. But I personally had a hard time connecting and I was always left wanting more from Ella’s Thing, and was struggling at times with how often the story jumped and moved around from POV’s and timelines. However, I’ll be keeping this novella in my mind and on my shelves as it may be one of those books that I read again later, however, and can then enjoy a great deal more.
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