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.
Akwaeke Emezi is one of my favourite contemporary writers. A release of one of their books is an event in my literary calendar and I have been looking forward to this one from the moment it was released, but I did not feel that I was in the right place to read it. Their novels are glorious, but also challenging.
What was I expecting? The usual from Emezi: brutal and unflinching honesty, glorious language, compelling characters and heart ache. And the opening line delivered exactly that:
They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.
This is one of the most potent opening lines I have come across. And this image of Vivek, naked, wrapped in a cloth, delivered dead to his parents door is the brutal central moment around which this novel revolves. We learn who Vivek was; we learn to love him; we learn (eventually) how he died; we learn the impact his death has had on his family, friends and community.
And despite being dead, Vivek remains a vital character in the novel: we are treated to flashbacks all the way back to to his parents’ courtship in a bravura opening chapter imagining a sequence of photographs telling their own own stories. We see his birth and his childhood and his quest for his own identity; we also hear his voice from beyond the grave and those were perhaps the most poignant passages. In a slim novel, his presence was powerful.
Emezi plays fast-and-loose with chronology and narrative voice here as Vivek’s death fractures the world around him. We see his father Chika paralysed by his grief; his mother, Kavita, manically seeking the truth around his death; Osita, Vivek’s cousin and lover, losing himself in drink and sex; Juju, his friend becoming mute. We flash forward and flash back. We shift between third person and first person. And this fracturing, this disjointing of the novel feels just so right and organic somehow.
Emezi creates a potent sense of community, set in their native Nigeria, bound up by the traditional taboos and prejudices whilst also confronting new ideas of identity. As we follow Vivek’s growing realisation of and reconciliation with his transgender identity as Nnemdi, the younger generation of friends – the daughters of the Nigerwives organisation, supporting those who married in Nigeria from abroad – love and support him. His father, however, puts his behaviour and his growing hair down to mental illness; his mother-in-law, Mary, who ascribes it to demonic possession. As Vivek himself opines
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 real me was invisible to them. It didn’t even exist to them. So: If nobody sees you, are you still there?
There is just so much contained in the 250 pages of this novel! So much that is makes it really difficult to review, in fact.
The relationships between Osita and Vivek, Juju and Elizabeth was wonderfully tender and their relationships and sexual relations were fluid, creating its own problems and tensions, but resolving others. It felt all completely credible and authentic to me. I loved the conflict between Mary’s zealous Christianity and Kavita’s more liberal and understanding approach, and the feud between the two women. There is one chapter, chapter 16, which steps away from Vivek and his family and we get a little vignette of the community through the eyes of Ebenezer the vulcanizer who finds himself tempted by a number of women that pass through his life despite his marriage to Chisom. This chapter might have been obtrusive, a jarring break from the central narrative, but again I loved the additional colour and depth that it gave to the community.
Compared to Freshwater, this is perhaps a little more traditional for all its fractures – it is a less metaphysical, less embedded in myth and less internal. The otherness does remain there in the background. Vivek is or may be a reincarnation of his grandmother Ahunna, who died on the day he was born and whose scar – in the shape of a starfish variously described as “limp, soft and deflated” – he somehow inherited. Mysterious backouts and fugues haunt Vivek’s youth which may be connected with that connection. And of course in Vivek’s post-death voice.
That voice is haunting and beautiful and contains some of the most gorgeous lines in the book.
The novel is also – on one level at least – borrowing from detective fiction: Kavita continually asks questions, probes for the truth of her son’s death. Why was he left at their house if he died in a market in the riot? Why was he naked? Why was he wrapped up? What happened to his treasured necklace? The final chapters really push this and we finally discover the truth of Vivek’s death – how and why and with whom – which I shall not spoil but it was heart wrenching.
The final words, perhaps should be Vivek’s own who describes his death like this:
I often wonder if I died in the best possible way—in the arms of the one who loved me the most, wearing a skin that was true.
- Vivek’s voice, which was meditative and lyrical and whimsical and so tender.
- The sense of community created in the novel.
- The sheer power of Emezi’s prose which flows from tender to brutal.
- The tenderness of the friendships between the central core of Vivek, Osita, Juju and Elizabeth, along with their friends Somto and Olunne – a friendship which was never romanticised or easy but powerful and real.
- The care with which Emezi paints the grief that Vivek’s death generates – Kavita’s maternal grief which is monstrous and all-consuming, and which has to learn that others’ grief and others’ ways of grieving were valid too.
What Could Have Been Different
- Possibly the novel’s attempts to hide information was a little clumsy and obvious: Kavita defaces Vivek’s gravestone at one point and it is replaced with different wording, and Emezi’s delay in revealing the new wording – and Ekene’s response to it was wonderful, by the way – felt unusually awkward.