Here I am, once again back to the realm of highly anticipated reads. Already familiar with Emezi’s astonishing debut Freshwater, I was nothing less than excited to read their second book, that once again deals with themes of gender, identity, sexuality in the context of Nigerian culture. I was very eager to read it, and at the same time ready to get hurt; in both senses I was not disappointed.
Title: The Death Of Vivek Oji
Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: 4 August 2020
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Length: 248 pages
Standalone or Series: Standalone
Synopsis: The novel, set in Nigeria during the 1980s and ’90s, begins with the death of the titular character, whose body is anonimously delivered to his mother’s doorstep. From there, the story unfolds through flashbacks and memories, even showing us glimpses of the youth and first encounter of Vivek’s parents Chika and Kavita, an Igbo man and an Indian woman respectively, and indulging on the bittersweet circumstances of the main character’s birth: born on the same day Chika’s beloved mother passed away, Vivek has the very same scar she had on her foot, suggesting a deeper spiritual connection between the two. Growing up, Vivek appears to be a complex and troubled soul, repeatedly falling in trance-like states, and most importantly struggling to fit with the strict gender roles imposed by society. Trying to develop a genuine identity in a violently unaccepting context, Vivek slips more and more apart from the clueless protectiveness of his mother, instead finding refuge – and various forms of affection – among a group of close friends, who end up being the only keepers of Vivek’s deepest truth.
Analysis: As befits its fractured and composite nature, the story is told through a multitude of voices and perspectives; some chapters are in third person, following the experiences of several character through the perspective of an ominscent narrator; other extensive sections are told in first person by Vivek’s cousin Osita, other shorter ones are narrated, seemingly from beyond the grave, by Vivek himself. The narrative is decidedly nonlinear, starting with the death of the main character to spread in every direction, following the chaotic pattern of emotion and memory. The prose adapts to all such different perspectives: with Vivek’s interludes being the most poetic in style, the third person narrator keeping an even and consistent tone, and all various characters bringing their own concitated voices whenever they are brought onto the scene. While primarily written in English, the prose also incorporates words in Igbo as well as other local idioms and speech patterns.
While Vivek’s gender identity is a central theme of the book, it is not entirely revealed from the start; masculine pronouns are generally used to design the main character, as in most cases Vivek is being observed by extrenal, often puzzled eyes.
The Death Of Vivek Oji opens with a premise that could fit a mystery novel: Vivek is dead, in unclear circumstances and obviously not by any natural cause; the question of “whodunnit” immediately comes to mind. And indeed, figuring out what really happened is one of the topics of the book, both through the incessant questioning of her mother Kavita, and as an underlying thread that drives the reader’s attention until the end of the novel. The story, however, isn’t shaped as a traditional mystery; there is no structured investigation to follow, no ingenious deduction or decisive clue. As we move on, Vivek’s end become less and less central, being overshadowed by the vibrant memories of her personality; in other words, the inquiry focuses less on the truth of Vivek’s death, and more on that of Vivek’s life.
As his departure eases the needs for protective discretion, in fact, Vivek’s secret life is gradually disclosed; the memories of his parents’ obstinate denial alternate with the joyous image of Vivek dressing, acting, and looking like her true self once secure among his trusted companions. In the end, it matters less what or whom exactly caused Vivek’s death – what is much more striking is how much of her life, energy, potential for joy, were actually wasted to the oppression of societal norms.
Interestingly, the theme of hypocrisy and harmful prejudices isn’t even limited to the story of Vivek and of other queer characters; while they are for sure the focus of our attention, there’s no lack of other instances in which individuals suffer and relationships deteriorate under the pressure of extraneous expectations. Emezi juxtapposes different communities of people, who try to support each other, but adopt different standards in doing so: from Vivek’s messy but truly accepting chosen family, to the Nigerwives, a group of foreign women married to Nigerian men, who on the one hand work as an effective support system for each other, on the other hand may also end up enforcing oppressive norms in order to fit into mainstream society. The nature of community bonds is thus shown in its ambiguity and complexity, neither idealised nor condemned, but displayed as a true mirror of human nature.
In the novel we can also see a slight undercurrent of magic spirituality, in the shape of Vivek’s suggested link with his grandmother, and in the ambiguous nature of her trance states, that are never explained in scientific terms; it is a very subtle touch, however, that speaks more of a different cultural sensibility than of any intent to add an actual supernatural theme – which is not surprising, considering how Emezi’s debut novel was in fact an autobiography that openly featured spirits from Igbo folklore.
As for the ending, Vivek’s actual fate deserves an additional note:
Conclusions & Recommendations: I am, once again, in awe of Emezi’s devastating insightfulness. What else can I say? Recommended to anyone to whom I’d recommend a book.
Content Warning: Death – Homophobia – Transphobia – Incest – Sexual Content