This year has been full of some genuinely fantastic novellas, and TOR has done an exceptional job of leading the charge. Novellas have such potential to be focused, and a lot of authors have recently showcased that potential in big ways. Novellas can be explosive and monumental and addicting. One that has stuck with me through the year, and I couldn’t help but re-read a couple of times due to the protests this summer and fall, is Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi. I wish I could find a way to distill how I feel about it into a single sentence, or even a review. I’ve attempted below, but this is easily one of the most subjective and gut feeling reviews I’ve written. Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby is a laser focused story of anger, pain and revolution, and you should read it.
Riot Baby is the story of Ella and her brother Kev, two kids who grow up while black in an increasingly dystopian America. Ella witnesses her brother’s birth during the LA riots, after the officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King were acquitted. Ella has a gift; she can see the future of those around her, and it’s filled with pain, suffering and death. She ends up leaving her family as her power grows, and Kev is thrown in jail. As they grow older, Ella is able to use her powers to take Kev mentally somewhere else and show him the world, but he slowly grows impatient, knowing she could level the prison and help him escape. Ella visits Kev while he’s in jail, reminding him she’s still there for him but unable to do anything about his predicament despite her powers. Meanwhile Kev lives day to day, trying to survive without succumbing totally and completely to the system.
There is no dancing around this, I loved Riot Baby. Onyebuchi drives through the story with purpose, using his disjointed structure to maximum effect. The story jumps back and forth between Ella and Kev, showing their individual experiences within America as it grows increasingly bleaker as they get older. Ella’s journey to understand her power, to learn to carry the knowledge she has of the future and shape it, is phenomenal. Kev’s time in prison is equally claustrophobic, pent up and hopeless, lending a sense of desperation and anger. Onyebuchi knows exactly when to switch between them to highlight their mirrored journeys and growing frustration with the tension between them.
While the bare bones of the story itself is a solid foundation, Onyebuchi’s writing style kept me enthralled and heightened the emotional impact of the siblings’ story. There is a brewing anger behind every sentence. An undercurrent of injustice rippled each page as Kev and Ella had to come to grips with the world they lived in. What I found so fascinating about the anger in Riot Baby is how incredibly right it felt. There is a fervor in it that grows in a raging crescendo towards the end of the book that is unavoidable, and it feels like a siren’s call. I initially read this in January, and felt it, and after this summer, it feels even more poignant on re-read after re-read.
The way Onyebuchi interweaves Ella’s powers into the history of Black America is poetic and righteous. It’s a casual reminder of our past, so much as it is a clarion call for a better future. Each scene is painted vividly, focusing on the people and how they are affected. Sure places, and things play an important role, but how these people’s lives are affected by the system are highlighted. Whether it be children or adults, men or women, they can’t escape the ever watchful eyes of the state. It’s an exercise in empathy, an empathy rooted in a passionate rage at the injustice of the system, that I’ve rarely seen and Onyebuchi pulls it off with aplomb.
It’s hard to talk about this book as a book. I could go into the technicals a little more, and maybe dig into whether the characters work or not. But I honestly feel like I’d be doing Onyebuchi and Riot Baby a disservice to break it down so mechanically, when it’s so purposefully full of emotion. There is such a powerful whirlwind in it’s pages, howling to those who read it. I recommend Riot Baby wholeheartedly. You should read it with others and talk about it. Be galvanized by it. It’s a story, sure, but it’s the perfect representation of art speaking a truth most should know by now. Let it speak to you, so you don’t remain silent about it afterwards.
Rating: Riot Baby – 10.0/10