Akwaeke Emezi has published three books within a very short period of time, which have been accompanied with quite a lot of hype. (A review of Emezi’s debut Freshwater can be found here.) As a result, I could hardly wait to finally get my hands on The Death of Vivek Oji. As one has come to expect of Emezi’s work, this book successfully shakes up conservative constructions of gender. The writer illustrates the loneliness that can come with not conforming to social norms regarding gender and sexuality; the profound pain of not being able to be the person you are.
The book begins with Vivek’s death and gradually unravels the circumstances surrounding this tragic event. Vivek is an only child and lives with his father and mother in a rural area of Nigeria. The mother – she is of Indian origin – moves in the circle of the so-called Nigerwives, a group of foreign women who married Nigerian men. The children of these women are among Vivek’s closest confidantes. They guard his secrets, even from his parents, until his mother’s search for the truth forces the young people to reveal it.
The narrative perspective changes repeatedly, and readers can thus get to know different facets of Vivek. While Vivek’s peers have nothing but acceptance, appreciation and deep love for Vivek, the adults can’t stop talking about him: he is strange, abnormal and possibly sick, because he acts feminine and shy, not like the boy he is supposed to be. Although the generational difference indicates changes happening in society, it is clear that Vivek is suffering and that he is forced to keep his secrets due to external circumstances.
Unfortunately, it is often the case that readers who bring high expectations with them to a book find that it does not necessarily manage to meet them. I would have wished to get to know the characters even more deeply – despite the drama, they seemed almost a little bit flat to me; they did not show much development over the course of the story. Nevertheless, The Death of Vivek Oji is clearly a stirring book: I definitely wanted to find out how Vivek died, what was behind his melancholy, and I was surprised a few times. Emezi’s book raises important questions about the fatal power of social norms in relation to the expression of one’s own identity and is a sensitive plea for self-empowerment.