The death of Vivek Oji

Akwaeke Emezi

Book - 2020

"A tender, potent, and compulsively readable novel of a Nigerian-Indian family and the deeply held secret that tests their traditions and bonds"--

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New York : Riverhead Books 2020.
Physical Description
248 pages ; 22 cm
Main Author
Akwaeke Emezi (author)
Review by Booklist Review

Emezi (Freshwater, 2018) is adept at never letting her prose sink into complacency. At the outset of her second novel for adults, it is no secret that Vivek Oji is dead. Vivek himself drops breadcrumbs that the reader might interpret as the reasons for his demise: "I'm not what anyone thinks I am. I never was. I didn't have the mouth to put it into words, to say what was wrong, to change the things I felt I needed to change." The tale's carefully woven construct falls apart at every turn in this deeply unsettling yet ultimately redeeming story about one young man's struggles in Nigeria in a society which too often straitjackets one's identity. Every sentence is an achingly raw jewel: "She'd been sanded down into dullness by grief and prayers that went unanswered." "He had a temper like gunpowder packed into a pipe." Although the sneak peek into Vivek's mental illness early on is sacrificed at the altar of the larger narrative, the dynamite story that emerges unflinchingly upends established definitions of family and community. This is another knockout performance from a writer who, much like her complex protagonist, refuses to color within the lines.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Emezi returns to adult fiction (after YA novel Pet) with a brisk tale that whirs around the mysterious death of a young Nigerian man, Vivek Oji. As a child in the 1990s, Vivek secretly identifies as a girl, the psychological strain of which causes Vivek to slip into blackouts. Only his close male cousin, Osita, recognizes the seriousness of these fugue states. (Vivek's parents dismiss them as "quiet spells.") As a teenager, Vivek grows his hair long in defiance of gender expectations, and Emezi affectingly explores the harm of threats to Vivek's gender expression from other boys and men, who sling insults and glass bottles at him on the street. As Vivek finds solace in his female friends and Osita, he discovers he is not the only one with secrets. After his death, the heartbreaking details of which are gradually revealed, the other characters learn more about his secret life . While Emezi leans on clichés ("hit me in the chest like a lorry") and two-dimensional supporting characters, they offer sharp observations about the cost of transphobia and homophobia, and about the limits of honesty in their characters' lives. Despite a few bumps, this is a worthy effort. Agent: Jacqueline Ko, Wylie Agency. (Aug.)Correction: An earlier version of this review did not use the author's preferred gender pronouns.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

For Kavita, an immigrant from India, assimilation into Nigerian culture promises acceptance and companionship. With the Nigerwives--fellow transplants married to Nigerians--she practices recipes and accedes to social norms, accepting husband Chika's plan to "toughen up" sensitive son Vivek with military school. Afterward, Kavita deflects concerns about Vivek's abrupt return from university, detachment, weight loss, late-night wanderings, and flagrantly unusual hairstyle. On the day political unrest instigates rioters to burn the marketplace, Kavita discovers Vivek's body, stripped of clothing, wrapped in smoke-tinged fabric, and left on her veranda. While Kavita relentlessly probes the mystery of Vivek's death, Vivek's cousin and childhood friends, with whom Vivek sought refuge from the identity he could not assimilate, harbor answers about his life. Artfully structured with multiple viewpoints and flashbacks, Emezi's (Freshwater) heartrending, redemptive story garners outstanding narration by Yetide Badaki and Chukwudi Iwuji, who convey a vivid sense of place and add dimension to even minor characters. Both narrators express emotions compellingly--depths of grief and remorse, quieter moments of devastating epiphany, and the nuanced sparring and sharing among Vivek and his contemporaries, whose revelations allow Vivek to finally be seen and heard. VERDICT Literary fiction fans will be transported by this production. Enthusiastically recommended. --Linda Sappenfield, Round Rock P.L., TX

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

The author of the young adult novel Pet, a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award, offers another exploration of gender identity, this time for adults. This book's title leaves no doubt about the fate of its central character. Nor does the first chapter, which is one sentence long: "They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died." Then the story moves into the past to introduce Vivek's father, Chika, as he is about to meet Kavita, the woman who will become his wife and Vivek's mother. The next chapter is told from the perspective of Vivek's cousin, Osita. As the narrative moves around in time and from viewpoint to viewpoint, Emezi offers a richly textured depiction of a middle-class community in Nigeria--one that includes several immigrants, among them Vivek's Indian mother. In these early chapters, there is no sense of the tragedy that's coming. The first hint of trouble ahead is when Vivek starts slipping into fugue states. Eventually, Vivek will explain that these were moments when the burden of living an inauthentic life became too much to bear. When Vivek lets his hair grow long and acknowledges his true sexuality, he experiences some relief from this stress, but new problems arise--including an aunt who thinks he's possessed by demons and boys who throw bottles at him. He is only just beginning to express his true self openly when he dies. Only a handful of chapters--most of them very brief--are told from Vivek's point of view. There's something heartbreaking about the fact that his story can only be told by others, especially since some of them never saw him as he wanted to be seen. And Osita--who loved Vivek and knew him better than anyone--cannot say everything he knows. Even so, the novel ends on a note of hope. Vividly written and deeply affecting. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.