Title: The Death of Vivek Oji
Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Published by: Faber & Faber
Publication date: 6th May 2021
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Source: Private Collection
One afternoon, a mother opens her front door to find the length of her son’s body stretched out on the veranda, swaddled in akwete material, his head on her welcome mat. The Death of Vivek Oji transports us to the day of Vivek’s birth, the day his grandmother Ahunna died. It is the story of an overprotective mother and a distant father, and the heart-wrenching tale of one family’s struggle to understand their child, just as Vivek learns to recognize himself.
I was brought a copy of this book by Bookstooge, in return for an artwork commission. Thank you very much for the book.
The Death of Vivek Oji follows family life surrounding the titular character, Vivek, and chronicles the events pre and post his death. Set in South-Eastern Nigeria and told, mostly, through the eyes of those around Vivek, his family, friends, lovers, and strangers that thought they knew him. The Death of Vivek Oji covers contemporary topics of identity and race in a daring, yet sensitive manner. A captivating novel about friendship and love in a coming-of-age and coming-out story that starts and ends in tragedy.
The accounts of Viveks life are given through both his family and friends. His mother, Kavita, is desperate to find out what happened to her son on the night he died and as she struggles to find out the truth behind her son’s secret life. As an understanding but over-protective Mother swallowed by her grief her life becomes enveloped in her desire for answers. As one of the lead characters, I empathized with her situation; wanting to keep her unwell son safe, and being unable to shelter him from the world forever.
I did struggle with some of the other relationships in the book, however. Osita, Viveks cousin, and his developing relationship with him were one that I had particular difficulty with. Inter-familial relationships are a particular issue for me. I don’t see them as anything other than horribly wrong. As such, I couldn’t really get behind the crux of the story – their romance and their challenge to society’s views of it, why they feel the need to keep their sexualities, identities, and romance a hidden secret. What I didn’t understand about this element of the novel though, is why none of their friends challenge them? Is having sexual relations with your first cousin acceptable to these people?
Although this book is about Vivek and there are some minor snippets from his perspective, I found that he was somewhat lacking in presence in the story as a whole. He was there, but it didn’t feel like there was much input from him; other than the instance where he asked his cousin if he could watch him having sex with his girlfriend and him growing out his hair. Vivek was meant to be a shining beacon in his novel. A character that would garner sympathy and drive the hunger to know what happened to him, why he was dead, but I found him to be something of a selfish creep! Sadly, I couldn’t connect with him on a deeper level and found myself rather nonchalant about the whole affair. I was left feeling like I wanted to know more about him. His life from his perspective, rather than gloss over the gender fluidity and blackouts that he suffered. We were told, by his parents and friends, that he was sick. Were they talking about his self-expression or his fugue states? It felt like there were too many blanks and questions left unanswered – which when reading a book doesn’t feel rounded.
While I found the writing itself to be well-crafted and at times beautiful and insightful, the manner in which it is presented feels disjointed. The timeline jumps in a manner that is difficult to follow; scenes don’t always follow logically from one to another. It feels like the only true consideration was towards gender representation and sexuality while the rest of the novel was there to fill out the pages. The writing style was fluid and easy to grasp – which I was thankful for considering its setting is a culture vastly different from my own – which helps the pages turn quickly and immersion into the story feel vivid. Some of the elements to the novel felt real; the collection of ‘Nigerwives’ women that are from an outside culture married to Nigerian men and how they have banded together as a support network for one another and their children. Some of the characters in this selection felt uncannily realistic and while some of their actions are questionable, they still felt real within the parameters of their cultures.
The Death of Vivek Oji is one of those books that fell flat with my expectations. I was hoping to be transported into the life of a character wrapped in tragedy. Yet, I can only feel a certain detachment from their issues. The actions and motivations of those around Vivek and telling his story fell utterly flat. There was an absence of life in them and I felt disconnected from their struggles. The major event, the titular event, was the biggest disappointment; it had nothing to do with the topical issues being addressed in this book and it felt like a bit of a cop-out. The author had a chance to really hammer home some of the contemporary discussions that had already been touched upon but instead chose something else, it felt like a wasted opportunity.
I think that sums up the vast majority of this book; wasted opportunity. So many of the characters go unexplored and leave so many questions that are unanswered. Closure in a book makes the experience feel more alive and there was so little of it in The Death of Vivek Oji.
Although well written and beautiful in places, there’s a huge elephant in the room about this book regarding incestuous relationships. Because of that, I couldn’t immerse myself in the central relationships and motivations. A distinct lack of perspective from the titular character left the rest of the book feeling flat and lifeless.