The book begins when the protagonist, Anyanwu, is already 350 years old. She serves as healer to her people and some see her as a God or a witch. Anyanwu can shift into any animal or person she wants. She even has the ability to shift her gender and become a man in every sense of the word. What motivates her the most, are her children and her descendants. This is what Doro, the antagonist, uses to force her to leave Africa for the new world. Like Anyanwu, Doro has great power but he is far older. He has sustained himself for the last 3,500 years by feeding on people, through stealing their bodies whenever he feels hunger, or to exert control over their person. When angered he has great difficulty controlling his ability to kill. Doro at times kills indiscriminately because he places no value on those who are mortal. He will also kill anyone he perceives as one day having the ability to challenge or control him. He rules his followers through fear, and yet we are told repeatedly how much they love and respect him.
Doro collects people who are different and then breeds them in order to increase the power of their descendants. He wants Anyanwu for her special abilities and she leaves her home believing that she is protecting her children and will become his wife. When Anyanwu arrives in America, she learns that he never had any intention of making her his wife, and instead marries her off to his favorite son Issac. Throughout the entirety of their marriage, Doro forces her to not only have sex with him but other men and bare the children of these unions. Issac, Anyanwu’s husband is also taken from their home, to occasionally father children with other women. Doro constantly threatens Anyanwu and yet he has the nerve to be angry that she does not love him. From start to finish, their interactions are filled with deceit, sexual violence, emotional abuse and an extreme imbalance in power. What is disturbing is that there is no discussion of the role of gender in their interactions and instead it seems to be about their differing magical abilities.
When Anyanwu finally makes a bid for freedom after Issac dies, she manages to live for 100 years as a dolphin but when she sets up her own community, Doro quickly finds her and forces himself back into her life, though he begins to feel conflicted about what he is doing to her. Once again, in order to protect her children, she concedes to his will. Essentially, the question is can Anyanwu ever find a way to escape from Doro?
I was not a fan of this book and though it was a scant two hundred and nineteen pages long, I think it would have worked better as a novella than a book. Butler seemed to just drag the story along and add characters which she didn’t bother to give real attention to before killing them off. She was able to do this because instead of actually telling a story, Butler simple revealed the life of her protagonist.