Review: The Death Of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

This novel starts with the death of its titular character, and is driven by the puzzle of the circumstances surrounding it. First the narrative goes back in time to introduce Vivek’s grandmother, Ahunna, in a village in south east Nigeria. She has two sons, Chika and Ekene. Chika meets and marries an Indian woman, Kativa. Ahunna dies on the same day that Vivek is born – a coincidence that takes on greater significance as the novel progresses. The new family is thrown into grief.

Vivek is a precocious child who stands out for his difference. He fights with the bigger, older kids who provoke him, wears his hair long and suffers from moments of mental absence. His older cousin Osita and the daughters of the the Nigerwives – his mother’s friends group – watch out for him. When Vivek drops out of university he fatefully and fatally returns to his hometown.

Hidden from the eyes of the town and his parents, Vivek begins experimenting with his gender and sexuality, wearing dresses and makeup. Osita, and two of their friends, are also discovering new facets of their identity and desire. There are no protections for queer people in Nigeria: queer sex and relationships are illegal and criminalised. Throughout the novel suggests that this is the cause of Vivek’s death. Even though the eventual revelation is not quite so direct, it’s fair to say that the secrecy and silence Vivek and his friends are forced into plays a major role. The tragedy of the story goes well beyond that of Vivek’s death.

The Death Of Vivek Oji loops forward and backwards in time with little logic except to put off the eventual reveal. More successful is Emezi’s use of first person narrative by Vivek and Osita – it is only here that we see the full story and get to understand their sense of identity and desire, hidden away, yet undeniable, like queer lives everywhere there is bigotry. The writing is clear and competent, and I enjoyed the use of vernacular in the dialogue. There are some nice resonances throughout, such as the role photos play in the story. Even so, this novel didn’t compel me, but I appreciated this insight into queer Nigeria.

Gay rating: 5/5 for queer characters, relationships and explicit queer sex.

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