Review: 'The Death of Vivek Oji,' By Akwaeke EmeziAkwaeke Emezi's new novel begins with a death; it adopts the form — but not the spirit — of traditional crime fiction, glorying in some of the genre's conventions while slyly subverting them.
The writer and video artist Akwaeke Emezi, who was born in Nigeria and lives in New Orleans, burst into the literary world with their 2018 debut Freshwater, which mixes Igbo ontology, perspective-shifting narration, and fearless, swaggering prose to bring a coming-of-age tale radically alive. In Freshwater, Emezi prioritizes voice above all else. Their propulsive writing blasts through the familiar plot beats of literary fiction. Abandoning structure is a risky choice, but Emezi pulls it off: Freshwater is a tough book to look up from. So is their follow-up, The Death of Vivek Oji — but for completely different reasons. The two novels are strikingly dissimilar. Where Freshwater is headlong, Vivek Oji is restrained. Where Freshwater roams between countries and regions, Vivek Oji remains firmly planted in southern Nigeria. Where Freshwater refuses traditional storytelling, Vivek Oji adopts the form — though never the spirit — of traditional crime fiction, seeming to glory in the genre's conventions before slyly subverting them.
It's always impressive to see a writer transform between novels in this way, but Vivek Oji would be impressive regardless. Emezi deftly tucks doomed romance and family drama into mystery, then, slowly but surely, reveals their true aim: to construct a portrait of love triumphant over death. (It helps that Vivek, who dies in the novel's first sentence, periodically checks in from beyond the grave, seeming highly affectionate toward his survivors.) Ultimately, the most important tensions and competitions in Vivek Oji are not between life and death, but between different forms of love.
Vivek's mother Kavita believes she has the greatest possible claim over him — he was, after all, her child, a college student living at home until the day she discovered his body on her front step. Kavita serves as the novel's detective, though her search for the truth gets stymied by her nephew Osita. Osita is Vivek's only cousin, his closest friend, and his lover, a secret Emezi signals heavily from the book's start. But Osita has another secret, one that he hides from Kavita and that he is positive makes him the truest keeper of Vivek's memory. Vivek's childhood friends think the same about themselves — and in their ways, all of them are right.
In a traditional mystery — an Agatha Christie, say — at least some characters would be bad actors, their motivations for seeking or hiding the truth about Vivek's death dishonest or illegitimate. Osita's secret would be tawdry or violent: a bad debt, a knife fight. Vivek's friends would want money. Kavita would be conniving or cruel. In Vivek Oji, the opposite is true. This is Emezi's first and greatest intervention on the crime-novel form: nobody loved Vivek impurely. Osita's relationship with Vivek may have been incestuous, but Emezi demands that the reader respect it; the novel fully permits Osita his complex grief for "the love of [his] sinful life." Because all love in Vivek Oji is pure, all the competing claims on Vivek are valid; the novel can end happily only with compromise, which Emezi chooses. Vivek's survivors come gradually together, choosing not competition, but peace.
Emezi's second innovation on murder-mystery norms is their gradual de-escalation of the importance of Vivek's death. At first, they mention it ceaselessly. The first time Vivek's dad Chika appears, Emezi presents his face through the filter of death: Chika "had looks that should have lived forever, features he passed down to Vivek — the teeth, the almond eyes, the smooth skin — features that died with Vivek." Osita's first internal monologue opens, "Vivek chipped my tooth when I was eleven years old. Now, when I look in a mirror and open my mouth, I think of him and I feel the sadness crawling through me again." If Emezi kept up this level of reminder, it would grow rapidly wearying. The reader would get inured to Vivek's death — which is a hazard of reading murder mysteries, or listening to crime podcasts, or watching too much CSI. Untimely death becomes normal. In Vivek Oji, it becomes unimportant. Emezi abandons death to focus on the complicated joys of Vivek's life, which I very much do not want to spoil for the reader, but which are joyful indeed.
If Emezi keeps one norm from crime fiction, it is their use of stock characters, who abound. A vulcanizer named Ebenezer appears only to enable coincidence and underscore the importance of faithful love; Osita's mother's harsh, unbending personality is neatly explained by a string of long-ago miscarriages. Literary writers and critic often scorn characterization this flat, but Emezi uses their stock characters effectively as points of contrast to the mutable, grieving Kavita and Osita — and, more importantly, to Vivek. Instead of getting flattened by death, Vivek becomes more vivid on each page. He glows like the sun, impossible to look at directly yet utterly charismatic. I missed him when the novel was done.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.