Bite-sized Books: Binti – Home

Binti and Okwu have settled into life at Oomza Uni – in so far as they can as a Meduse and a Himba with blue tentacles for hair. Troubled by nightmares and erratic rages, Binti becomes convinced she needs to go on pilgrimage to be ritually cleansed. She needs to go home.

I thought Binti was interesting – as unusual in its blend of tribal traditions and space opera as it was for taking what could have been a simple coming of age story and turning it into a deeper question of identity and acceptance. I didn’t find it particularly emotionally satisfying – it felt like the story was bigger than the novella format could deliver (although all those awards suggest I’m in the minority here) – but it was intriguing enough to ensure I’d read a sequel.

However, I didn’t rush to pick up Home (especially once I heard about the cliffhanger at the end), and I made the mistake of not rereading Binti before I got stuck in. While I remembered the broad strokes of Binti’s survival, the finer details were gone – making Home occasionally jarring (as a novella, it doesn’t have space to catch you up on anything you may have missed, producing moments in my head that broadly went: hang on, wait, what, the mathematical meditation produces electric current? Did it always do that? etc).

We rejoin Binti on Oomza, appearing – unsurprisingly – to be struggling to cope with PTSD after her recent experiences and with her isolation after growing up in a close-knit tribe. She remains close with Okwu, who adopted her as Meduse, but this is problematic – Okwu remains unapologetically belligerent, still keen to crush (academically or physically) any who slight him.

Although Binti is making marvellous progress in her studies, she decides to go home to partake in a ritual pilgrimage, an important passage to adulthood amongst her people – and one which she hopes will cleanse her of the ‘toxic’ rages she is struggling with. She will take Okwu with her, his visit symbolic of the new peace between Meduse and humanity.

It’s a strong start and I was all set for a story that would give us the context that was missing from the first novella; a glimpse of the Himba and Binti’s family. I should be careful what I wish for: Home does exactly that, and I pretty much hated it anyway.

Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with Home. It’s got some fascinating plot developments in it, and Binti’s journey has interesting twists and turns. It’s a matter of personal taste – from the moment Binti leaves Oomza she goes from being a mathematical prodigy studying weird alien artefacts and dissolves into a puddle of doubt and self-loathing because no man will ever want to marry her.

…and that’s just not a story I ever get on board with, I’m afraid. I appreciate – especially after meeting her family here (woah, all her concerns in Binti make sense now; TEH DRAMA) – how much this is ingrained in her culture; but I will never not push back against this. It’s as deeply ingrained in me (the only child of a single mother from a family of independent, belligerent women) as the opposite is in Binti.

This holds true of all those interesting twists and turns that follow. Binti was busy feeling sorry for herself and rejecting change, while I was fascinated by her encounter with the Enyi Zinariya. Unfortunately, that means she read – to me at least – as whingy, self-pitying and rude (although this last probably is intended: there’s role reversal at play, because Binti considers herself culturally superior to the Enyi Zinariya, and looks down on them in much the same way the Khoush looked down on her for being Himba in the first book).

And I know I’m being unfair: this is a story of a teenager struggling to cope with rejection and outrageous change. It’s not unreasonable – her family, as she feared, have nothing but criticism for her leaving them, and have little recognition of her heroism or her academic achievements. She’s just an ungrateful, unmarriageable daughter with blue tentacles instead of hair.

With this context, Binti ultimately faces the dilemma of whether to embrace an even bigger change and step even farther from everything she has ever known. While it may not be clear why she loves her family given how they behave here, it is unquestionable that she does (as it has been from the very start; her father’s goodwill in particular is a touchstone), and the wrong choice will probably alienate them forever. Binti should be able to wobble before committing to something like that.

And yet. Angst takes masterful handling to win me over, and I didn’t get that here. In the end, given my cool appreciation rather than warm-hearted love for the first book, there’s a saddening truth emerging when it comes to my feelings about this series: I like the cover art an awful lot more than the stories inside.

Mileage will vary here – the Enyi Zinariya alone are enough to win the book a solid rating for intriguing world-building. But I will only be reading the third (and I believe final) novella because the series is now a Subjective Chaos nominee – even with a cliffhanger ending, Home left me uncaring of how all this ends.