Thanks to NetGalley and Faber & Faber for providing the ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Goodreads: The Death of Vivek Oji
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publication Date: 20 August 2020
Genre: Literary Fiction, Realistic Fiction
What does it mean for a family to lose a child they never really knew?
One afternoon, in a town in southeastern Nigeria, a mother opens her front door to discover her son’s body, wrapped in colorful fabric, at her feet. What follows is the tumultuous, heart-wrenching story of one family’s struggle to understand a child whose spirit is both gentle and mysterious. Raised by a distant father and an understanding but overprotective mother, Vivek suffers disorienting blackouts, moments of disconnection between self and surroundings. As adolescence gives way to adulthood, Vivek finds solace in friendships with the warm, boisterous daughters of the Nigerwives, foreign-born women married to Nigerian men. But Vivek’s closest bond is with Osita, the worldly, high-spirited cousin whose teasing confidence masks a guarded private life. As their relationship deepens—and Osita struggles to understand Vivek’s escalating crisis—the mystery gives way to a heart-stopping act of violence in a moment of exhilarating freedom.
Note: The quotes below are taken from an advanced/unfinished copy and are subject to change in the final version.
TL;DR: This was an incredible and heartbreaking story about the complexities of love, sexual and gender identity, and self-acceptance in a society that doesn’t accept or acknowledge your existence. It’s about loss, grief, fear and secrets. It’s a stunningly written book that I would highly recommend, although I will say it might not be for everyone as it does involve taboo relationships (sexually explicit) that some readers might find uncomfortable or disturbing. There are still months left to go in 2021, but so far, this is hands down one of my favourite reads of the year!
“Some people can’t see softness without wanting to hurt it.”
I just finished this book and I’m not quite sure that I have the words to speak coherently about how utterly stunning and devastating it is. I was warned that this would make me weepy, and yet, as I hit the 80% mark and had only felt mildly watery-eyed up until that point, I wasn’t sure if it’d do it for me. THEN those last parts hit me like a freight train going full-speed and I was left gasping as I finished the book in tears. It wasn’t that I didn’t see any of it coming but this emotionally charged story crescendoed so beautifully and painfully and… Y’know, I thought I was ready but I really wasn’t!
This is my first book by Emezi but it most certainly won’t be my last. Their writing is phenomenal. Absolutely stunning! I devoured the gorgeous prose so quickly that I had to tell myself to slow down because I wanted to savour it. Not only was the cultural setting beautifully wrought but the words were so full of all the emotions the characters experience that it’s almost a tangible thing. My heart, it aches!
“This is how Vivek was born, after death and into grief. It marked him, you see, it cut him down like a tree.”
The story opens with Vivek’s death and from there we explore the years leading up to that fateful day through the eyes of Vivek’s family and friends. Each chapter is a different POV and it also alternates from first-person and third-person based on which POV we’re reading. I wasn’t sure if that style would get confusing but it really worked for me. It served to increase the intimacy of certain chapters while also providing a “wider-lens” to capture the socio-cultural setting and how all the characters are impacted by its constructs. I thought the representation of being LGBTQ+ in Nigeria was explored really well and with the emotionally charged writing, it was easy to empathise with the confusion and fear the characters felt. We also see how grief manifests for our characters and the raw desperation of Kavita’s pain at the loss of her son was almost suffocating in its power. Emezi does an incredible job in translating such intense emotions into simple yet powerful words. Honestly, there’s so much to unpack in this story and no review of mine could ever do it justice! I just know that these characters and Vivek’s story will stick with me for a long time to come.
“So: If nobody sees you, are you still there?”
While this was almost a 5-star for me, there were some minor things that I didn’t really get. There were certain perspectives that I didn’t see the point of. I mean, I understood that the author was showing a different side to the situation, but it didn’t have the strong impact that the author (maybe) intended. I think it would’ve been more intimate and impactful if done through Osita or even Juju’s POV. Another aspect that confused me was the blackouts that Vivek experienced in his childhood. Those incidents just disappeared without explanation and I still don’t understand what or why it happened or what the author was trying to say with it, if anything.
Other than those minor issues, I have a feeling that this book will continue to grow on me (just like how Normal People really grew on me). I don’t doubt that I will find myself randomly thinking about Vivek’s story over the coming months, and perhaps years, to come. I’m really looking forward to reading more by Emezi and I’ll be starting with their debut, Freshwater, as I have a physical copy of that already sitting on my shelf!
Have you read The Death of Vivek Oji or is it on your TBR?