The Death of Vivek Oji: ”Beautyful” writing

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke EmeziThe Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke EmeziThe Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

On the same day a riot destroys the market in Ngwa, Nigeria, the body of Vivek Oji is left on his parents’ doorstep, naked except for a length of cloth. Gradually, through a variety of points of view, Akwaeke Emezi unfolds the story of Vivek’s life and death, and how that death affects Vivek’s loved ones — drawing some people closer together, driving faultlines between others.

Readers who’ve read Emezi’s earlier work might expect more supernatural elements than The Death of Vivek Oji (2020) actually contains. This short novel is mostly a realistic story, with two exceptions: Vivek occasionally narrates from beyond the grave, and it is implied that reincarnation exists. However, I think readers who enjoy Emezi’s “beautyful” writing (you’ll have to read the book to find out why I spelled it that way!) and explorations of gender and identity will find a lot to like here.

A central theme of the novel is the way Vivek is prevented from being his true self because of pressures from his family: both their expectations about what a son should be, and their fears about what might happen to him if he doesn’t toe the line. Vivek’s brief life plays out against a background of violence perpetrated on people who don’t conform in terms of gender or sexuality. (It’s a big contrast with the utopia of Pet, where no-fuss acceptance is the norm.) Another major element, though, is the nurturing environment he finds with his friends, some of whom are keeping secrets of their own.

Akwaeke Emezi

Akwaeke Emezi

The story that develops is sometimes devastating, sometimes heartwarming, sometimes infuriating, sometimes sensual. Emezi offers insight into a wide range of characters with diverse backgrounds and mindsets. The descriptive prose is beautiful; the dialogue, which includes a lot of Nigerian colloquialisms, can take a few minutes for an American reader to adjust to, but quickly clicks into place.

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When we find out what actually happened to Vivek Oji, there’s a little relief in it, because it’s not as terrible as what we might have built up and dreaded in our heads — just a tragic accident. But it’s also tragic that the one character who knows the truth is unable to tell it, because of that same tangle of family expectations.

The Death of Vivek Oji may not feature much in the way of the fantastic, but it’s a deeply affecting read that I think will have some crossover appeal for fantasy readers. I especially recommend it if you’ve enjoyed Emezi’s work before, or are interested in themes of grief, identity, and gender.

Published in August 2020. Named one of the year’s most anticipated books by The New York TimesElleHarper’s Bazaar, BuzzFeed, Refinery29, and more. 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. Propulsively readable, teeming with unforgettable characters, The Death of Vivek Oji is a novel of family and friendship that challenges expectations—a dramatic story of loss and transcendence that will move every reader.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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