One afternoon, in a town in south-eastern Nigeria, a mother opens her front door to discover her son’s body, wrapped in colourful 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.
Despite the novel’s title, Vivek’s death; the how and why of that single moment, is not the primary focus. Rather, we see snippets of his tragically short life and learn of the distress it causes for those he left behind. Instead of the novel’s driving force, his death looms on every page, acting as a backbone that holds the story in place.
As the main characters come of age within their restrictive society, issues of gender identity and sexuality lie at the forefront. Vivek becomes increasingly disinterred with the rest of the world: he hides at home, grows his hair out long, and drops out of university. His parents, meanwhile, struggle to understand what their child is going through. Thankfully, Vivek finds solace in the daughters of the Nigerwives and in his cousin, Osita. Their relationships were sweet, light, and fiercely loyal as they figure out who they are in this crazy world.
Through confident, nonlinear storytelling, Emezi masterfully balances different voices and timelines. However, I do wish we heard more from Vivek: the most vibrant and interesting character in the book. His chapters were short but sweet, wrapped up in phenomenal prose and quiet melancholy. Yet, given that Vivek was an enigma to his loved ones, they, and therefore, we, were not able to completely appreciate his essence. Nonetheless, Emezi seamlessly depicts the depths of Osita and Kavita’s grief with grace and clarity, and, despite Vivek’s tragic end, gives us hope through their exploration of the permeable borders between life and death.
The Death of Vivek Oji is a beautifully emotive and tender novel. “Why are you so afraid? Because something is different from what you know?”, Vivek asks at one point – but there are some people who know what he needs: “They barely understood him themselves, but they loved him, and that had been enough.”
Thank you, Faber Books, for sending me an advanced copy of The Death of Vivek Oji in exchange for an honest review.
Looking for more reading recommendations? Read my review of Boy Parts by Eliza Clark.
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