The Death of Vivek Oji is a Mosaic of Love, Pain, Community, and Beauty
Author: Sarah Neilson
August 19, 2020
The title of Akwaeke Emezi’s new novel, The Death of Vivek Oji (Riverhead), gives away its ending before the book even begins. But Emezi is a beacon of literary genius, as proved by their previous two books, Freshwater (2018) and Pet (2019). Their storytelling prowess goes beyond the idea of giving away an ending. The fact that the reader knows it from the start makes what happens in between all the more interesting. And in Emezi’s skilled hands, the mosaic of love, pain, community, family, trauma, and beauty, that make the crown to which Vivek is the bloody jewel, is crafted into an unforgettable and deeply moving story.
The narrative tracks a middle class Nigerian family’s struggle to navigate their own complicated personal relationships and their strained efforts to comprehend Vivek, their gender non-confirming kin. The novel is told from a variety of perspectives, and Vivek’s point of view appears only as short interludes in the broader narrative surrounding him. Born on the day his grandmother dies, Vivek grows up experiencing mysterious intermittent fugue states. As he ages, his gender expression becomes more and more expansive, causing great anxiety among his parents and older family members. The inheritance of reductive and harmful colonial structures of gender is a great arcing tragedy of the story. “I didn’t have the mouth to put it into words, to say what was wrong,” Vivek narrates, “to change the things I felt I needed to change… So: If nobody sees you, are you still there?” Later, he goes on: “I… grew out my hair, thinking that the weight dropping from my head would lighten the one inside of me. It worked – not by making anything lighter, no, but by making me feel more balanced, like one weight was pulling the other and the strain on me had been lessened. Perhaps I had just become the fulcrum, the point on which everything hinged, the turning.”
Vivek’s embodied fulcrum is expansiveness, is possibility, with all of its attendant joy and ache. Emezi is a master of writing this expansiveness. The word it hinges on is gender, but gender expansiveness petals outward to all of life, an inherent queering of inherited and invented narratives. Every page of this novel is electric, but the story really shines with the loving and complex portrayal of the relationships between its younger protagonists–Vivek and his cousin Osita, and the group of peers that make up their chosen family. Watching this group of young people do their best to fiercely love each other as they grow up, while navigating painful dynamics in their biological families, is a highlight of Vivek. Emezi is deft with their rendering of fully realized characters, of which there are many. Emezi’s choices about which perspectives will provide which context for the story are perfect, creating an atmosphere both fluid and engaging.
The communal narration of Vivek is like a map, with some characters narrating more than others. It is clear Emezi has a reverence for complicating narratives and characters so that they bloom outward into infinite possibility rather than be easily defined, or defined at all. As the plot unfolds toward its already-established conclusion, the reader is let in on not just secrets and a bit of mystery, but a work of art. “Who are we to define what is impossible or not?” Osita asks Vivek. It is the central question of the story, and one that feels like a welcome opening.