Halfway through Akwaeke Emezi’s captivating second adult novel The Death of Vivek Oji, I had a thought of how much the novel reminded me of one of my most favourite works of fiction, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. It was only when I reached the end of this novel that I learned in the acknowledgements section that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece was one of the inspirations behind this work. That is not to say that the comparison somehow diminishes the brilliance of The Death of Vivek Oji; rather, Emezi manages the tricky feat of rising above pastiche and creating, in The Death of Vivek Oji, a robust literary triumph in its own right.
The most stark distinction between the narrative styles of Chronicle of a Death Foretold and The Death of Vivek Oji is that while the former employs a coolly detached, journalistic style, the latter is brimming with violent, unbridled emotions. Emezi’s compact, sophisticated prose excels at marrying economy with elegance.
While the title certainly gives the climax away, in the tradition of the non-chronological narrative style, Vivek Oji features plenty of foreshadowing. It is no easy feat to give away the climax in the title yet still manage to build a compelling narrative around it. That requires self-assurance on the part of the author. Luckily for us, Emezi passes the test with dazzling aplomb. Their writing scintillates too with both poise and vigor.
The beginning of the book heralds the end: “They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.” From here, the narrative takes turns panning from one of Vivek’s mourners to the next, with largely second-hand accounts of the events before the tragedy. The first account comes from Kavita, Vivek’s mother who is struggling to find closure for her son’s untimely death. She is on a mission to make sense of the circumstances surrounding his death and the mystery of his dead body turning up, unattended, outside their house.
The spectre of Vivek’s death looms heavily over the characters during the first few chapters of the book. As if the title was not enough, there are almost too many reminders of his death early on, lest we forget. The writing reaffirms Vivek’s death in poetic ways which, like an oft-repeated myth, threatens to undermine its gravity. However, soon enough the story turns into a mystery with Kavita, the grieving mother, as the vigilant detective who is hell-bent on solving the riddle of her son’s premature death. She goes around interrogating and, at times, harassing Vivek’s close-knit circle of friends despite knowing that they too are grappling with their own set of regret and trauma.
Emezi is Igbo and Tamil. likewise, the youngsters who drive the plot forward in this story are also multiethnic. Vivek’s father is Nigerian and his mother is Tamil, spending her time with other “Nigerwives” – non Nigerian wives of Nigerian men. Theses identities touch many aspects of Emezi’s narrative, including Vivek’s death.
Grief works in mysterious ways. While Kavita is spurred on by her pain, relentless in her pursuit of the truth, Vivek’s dad, Chika, seems to be hollowed out by it, letting the festering grief drain him until he is virtually inert. Chika’s lifelessness is juxtaposed with a crisp playback of Vivek’s brief, but dramatic, life.
Vivek’s life was bookended by tragedy. His grandmother, Chika’s beloved Ahunna, died the same day he was born. Vivek came into the world “after death and into grief,” sporting a starfish-shaped birthmark on his foot which is identical to the one his grandmother had. Is he Ahunna’s reincarnation? Is that why he is so uncomfortable in his male form? These recurring questions, posed in the story, are seldom answered even as the narrative continues to unwind into the past.
Chika’s brother’s son, Osita, was considered as Vivek’s “older brother” but, as they grow old, the nature of their relationship veers into a dangerous territory that threatens to disrupt their lives. The cousins’ complicated relationship constitutes a significant thread of this story.
Osita, though, was the first person to truly care for Vivek. The fugue states that beset him since his teenage years lends to Vivek’s need to be cared for. His parents were loving, but unable to comprehend his “strangeness,” preferring to look the other way when confronted with anything unconventional. Vivek calls these spells “small blackouts” but, clearly, they are a symptom of a deeper issue, which remains unelaborated in the narrative. The way these spells are described seems like epileptic fits or seizures, where loss of consciousness is not a feature. If there is one gripe I had with this story it was that the mental illness aspect of Vivek’s truncated life were never explored sufficiently.
As Vivek starts growing out his hair and gets increasingly distant from the people around him, it soon becomes obvious that he is unhappy. His mother thinks it is just a phase while his father, always the realist, is worried about the repercussions of him going outside with long hair in the intolerant Nigerian society. “Vivek couldn’t end up like those lynched bodies at the junction, blackened by fire and stiffened, large gashes from machetes showing old red flesh underneath.” We would soon learn why his father’s concern was well founded.
Eventually, Vivek finds his tribe of friends who wrench his reluctant self from the depths of misery and give him a new lease of life. This section of the novel reads like a coming of age story; but, to relegate this novel to a single genre, like coming of age or a whodunit, is to do it grave disservice. Emezi uses a combination of voices of the people in Vivek’s life and Vivek himself, from beyond the grave, to reconstruct his life in fragments. What emerges is a sensitively drawn, achingly beautiful portrayal of the boundaries of personal, gender and societal identities.
The Death of Vivek Oji
By Akwaeke Emezi
August 04, 2020
A Karachi-based critic, bylines in Book Riot, Vol1Brooklyn, Brooklyn Mag, The Spectator, Irish Times and elsewhere. Can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org