Rage as Absolution in “The Book of Phoenix”

*Note: this post contains major spoilers.

pho

The Book of Phoenix follows the story of Phoenix – an accelerated “specimen”, created from the experiments of the secretive Tower Seven. Though she has the body of a forty year old woman she has only been alive for three years. She has never questioned the reasons for her existence, nor the intentions of her carers in Tower Seven.

When her friend and lover disappears under mysterious circumstances Phoenix begins to question her surroundings and doubt the only world that she has ever known. For the first time in her life she feels the sting of betrayal. For the first time she feels anger. Her anger burns within her, quite literally. Her skin starts to overheat, and as her emotions become too much for Phoenix to handle, she catches fire, like the mythical bird she is named after.

Much of the book’s progression involves Phoenix running from her creators, all the while learning more about how and why she was created. She comes into contact with various people who help her on her journey. The book touches on many issues – exploitation, racism, scientific ethics, but through it all injustice is the main player. Phoenix constantly mulls over the terrible going on in her world. She sees the suffering of those closest to her, and she feels the pain of it deeply. Perhaps because her introduction to the cruel aspect of life is so sudden, she is acutely sensitive to the pain inflicted on her and her loved ones. She is a deeply emotional being.

Being named and created for the bird that burns itself for new life seems to seal her fate. At the apex of each significant struggle, Phoenix burns. She rages, overheats, and wipes out anything and anyone that happen to be close to her. As a reader, I couldn’t help being attuned to Phoenix’s pain and anger at the many injustices she experiences. In fact, being inside her head reminded me of when I was younger. I also raged at the world’s injustices. I wondered how there could be so much suffering, and that a lot of it went unnoticed, uncared for. There are times, even now, when I do feel like the  world needs to be wiped out in order to rid it of the bad within it. But I know, of course, that this means erasing the good that is in the world, too.

You can see where I’m going with this. In the end, Phoenix’s burning is absolute. It is complete in its destruction. She bathes the world in her flames, a fiery baptism that allows it to be born anew, apparently rid of the evils that Phoenix had witnessed. I could understand her rage, I could understand her pain. But I couldn’t understand her decision in the end. It felt hollow. As if she was giving up, as if she was refusing to see that, despite the horrible things happening to her, there had been good moments, too. There had been kindness, and love, and there could have been hope.

I know this novel is meant to be a prequel to Who Fears Death, so it may very well be the case that Phoenix’s story had to end this way. For me, however, the ending left something to be desired. Phoenix’s story was beautiful, yes, and tragic, also yes. But I didn’t expect that it would be hollow.

(P.S. Also, what was up with that commentary on women being overly emotional? I know it’s framed within the perspective of the character who reads Phoenix’s book but considering everything that had come before, it seemed considerably out of place. It seemed to render the entirety of Phoenix’s journey redundant, and invalidate her final decision.)

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6 thoughts on “Rage as Absolution in “The Book of Phoenix”

  1. Nice review! I might be remembering it wrong, but I read the “women are too emotional” part as being a meta kind of response to men who make those ridiculous comments. It was a nice capstone to a book that is, as you say, “raging against the world’s injustices” and will likely be dismissed by readers who can’t (won’t?) get into that head space. It’s uncool for women to be angry– it gets on men’s nerves– but this book is written as a fable to demand space for that anger. Even in comic books, male anger is depicted as rational, while female anger is depicted as irrational, and the story is speaking to that. To me, it was a kind of sarcasm.

    As for the end of Phoenix’s story in this book: wish fulfillment? I don’t think Phoenix’s story could have gone any other way. If the story is to demonstrate the power of female anger– black female anger– then we have to see the full extent of what she’s capable of. I don’t think the reader is expected to agree or disagree with her, but to empathize with the experiences that led to that decision.

    I enjoyed the book because it is so strong and unapologetic and polemical, which reminds me of older science fiction tales of the classic and New Wave varieties.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You make a great point – I think the thing that puzzled me was that it seemed to echo Phoenix’s opinion as well? (Perhaps she thought she was getting too emotional herself…) I could be remembering wrong, though. I’ve returned the book so can’t check right now :\

      And absolutely! I love that you made that point, because I intended to look at feminine rage in this post and then totally forgot, ugh. But yes, I have to say I did love that aspect. Phoenix’s rage is easy to understand, and it’s easy to get into that head space. I guess I expected that, as she had been on this journey of discovery, it might lead to a kind of closure for her. But I guess this, too, was another kind of closure.
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment! 😀

      Like

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