The Half-God of Rainfall by Inua Ellams

This is the first book I haven’t ‘read’ since I was 8 years old and my favourite uncle gave me a cassette tape of one of the ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ books. I don’t remember which one that was, and I don’t think I even opened it from the wrapping. I’ve never really found it very easy to listen to anyone speaking for a long chunk of time so when I saw the prompt to listen to an audiobook, I looked for something that was closer to poetry in the hopes that it would be easier to pay attention.

‘The Half-God of Rainfall’ is an epic poem, telling the story of a boy called Demi who was born to a Nigerian woman raped by the god Zeus. As a child, Demi’s tears can drown whole fields; as an adult, his anger causes storms, and as a demi-god, his magic touch on the basketball field has thousands of sports fans worshipping him. For Demi, though, there is only one course of action: to take his powers on the basketball court all the way to Zeus’ front door, the London Olympics, to avenge his own birth.

Demi cannot avenge himself alone, however. In his fight against the old gods of Ancient Greece, he finds himself supported by Yoruba orishas, by the mortal women and goddesses alike Zeus had forced himself upon, and by his mother.

This is very much a poem but by splitting it into books and acts, Ellams echoes the dramatic structure of a Greek tragedy but the final act transforms the story. We think this is Demi’s story, the boy who becomes exceptional, who rails against the gods – but wars between gods have made casualties of women like Modupe, Demi’s mother, and she is the one who must finally confront her rapist, surviving not because of the intensity of her rage and anger but through her unmappable heart.

Modupe’s pain is as much Demi’s inheritance as the powers Zeus can offer him. We forget that, somewhere along the line – dazzled by Demi’s magic, by the possibility of flight. Demi escapes his own tears through basketball, the precise swish of his ball going into the net and the adulation of the crowd – the court is home to contests between half-gods, with no place for mortal women like Modupe to assert themselves in their own right. But by the end of the poem, Modupe reclaims herself, her body, her pain and her capacity for healing, rising up in the Greek pantheon’s #MeToo moment.

Ellams’ language is lyrical without being too euphemistic, and there are some images that have really stuck with me from his reading. My favourite line comes close to the end – “Ten thousand rivers loud is her scream”. That said, there are moments when I felt that the poem was a little too on the nose. For example, after a retelling of the myth of Icarus, we’re told “It’s never admired that he flew” – but I feel like I’ve heard a lot of people make that exact point, usually phrased as though they’re the first person to ever notice that. Jack Gilbert did it. Garfunkel and Oates did it. Even XKCD argued that Icarus is an engineering problem rather than a moral failure 🙂

None of those moments spoil my enjoyment of the poem overall. I loved this book and though I still don’t think the audio format is for me, I will look forward to reading more of Inua Ellams’ work in the future!

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