The Sleepless by Nuzo Onoh. In the interest of full disclosure, I did receive an e-ARC of this title from the author in exchange for an honest review. Here is the plot description via Goodreads:
An innocent boy is lured to his death by the one person that should have protected him. Someone knows the truth about his disappearance; his little sister, Obele, a child that hears a secret voice which tells her terrible things no child should know about. Obele knows too much and must be killed. Her salvation lies in the hands of her new friends, a group of giggling little girls she meets at an abandoned "cursed house." Except their friendship comes with a terrible price. And suddenly, Obele starts to ask herself who exactly...or rather, what exactly are her new friends. Worse, how can she free the tormented ghost of her dead brother, trapped by a witchdoctor's curse? Set amidst the Biafran War, "The Sleepless" follows one child's struggles against both the natural and supernatural forces that threaten to end her life before the deadly enemy bombs can do so. And perhaps, death from the skies is a better option than the terrifying alternative. "The Sleepless" - Another chilling tale about the restless and vengeful dead by the Queen of African Horror, Nuzo Onoh."The seamless blending of a true life, horrific situation with supernatural “monsters" is the biggest appeal here. As Onoh writes here, she has lives through the real life horror of the Biafran War and domestic abuse. She draws on her personal experiences with real life horrific events and writes about them with skill; however, it is in how she incorporates the supernatural monsters into the story where this book shines as Horror. The monsters-- real and otherworldly-- bring the fear in equal measures, so much so that as a reader, you start to believe that the supernatural threats are just as real as the human created ones. As a result, the novel is permeated by an intense sense of dread that never lets up. [This is huge praise for a horror novel for those of you new to the genre.]
Much of this success is the result of Onoh’s ability to capture the place, Africa, and it’s dangers so effortlessly. Yes the woods have wild animals, but they also contain witches, ghosts, and ghouls that can and will insert themselves into the human world. Many writers have grown up in places where this folklore was a part of their every day life [the Southern Gothic tradition is an example], but not all can capture it for the outsider as well as she did here. It took me a while after completing this book to stop looking for witches around every corner.... in the Chicago suburbs! Talk about feeling the fear.
The pacing is also brisk. The novel covers about two years of actual time and a lot happens, but Onoh clearly knew where she wanted this story to go and moves the reader along swiftly, keeping the blood, the fear, and the plot twists coming. You will want to read this book in as few sittings as possible.
The characters here-- both good and evil-- are well developed. In the case of the protagonist this is wonderful, as we easily fall into her plight and want to follow her on her difficult journey. But writing a sympathetic, well developed protagonist is one thing, here Onoh is also able to craft terrifyingly realistic bad guys-- like Obele’s father-- with enough detail that they move beyond stereotype.
I also appreciated learning about the Biafran War by reading this novel. Although I had heard of this war and knew a few surface details about it, I gained a larger understanding of its importance and devastating influence. So for that reason alone, many readers may want to read this novel.
I do want to mention that this book has two very big limiters-- the obviously mentioned violence against children, but more importantly, the book opens with a visceral scene involving a dead cat. If I have learned nothing else over my 16+ years of working with readers it is that when you kill a cat or a dog, people get angry. So I am passing that info on to help make your hand selling of this title easier.
Three Words That Describe This Book: Intense Dread, Fast Paced, Strong Characters
Readalikes: I already spent the last 2 days, here and here, writing about other African horror authors so I am not going to list any of those readalikes in this post.
Rather, I want to focus on readalikes that are a little more familiar to you.
Here are some books that also feature child narrators and monsters which are seamlessly integrated into a true horror situation, making the terror feel all the more real:
Here are some other female horror writers who incorporate ancient evil into their terrifying horror novels:
If you are looking for other books that use a real life war as the backdrop to a horror novel, I would suggest:
- The Devils of D-Day by Graham Masterton
- The Keep by F. Paul Wilson
- The Wolf’s Hour by Robert McCammon
Finally, if you are interested in a horror writer who draws off of African myths and themes but in a more familiar America setting, you NEED to read the work of Tananarive Due. I wrote about her work here on the blog back in 2011. Personally, I am a big fan of the African Immortals series which begins with My Soul to Keep.