The Death of Vivek Oji

Akwaeke Emezi

The Death of Vivek Oji
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The Death of Vivek Oji

Akwaeke Emezi

They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died. 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 over protective 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. Teeming with unforgettable characters whose lives have been shaped by Vivek’s gentle and enigmatic spirit, it shares with us a Nigerian childhood that challenges expectations. This novel, and its celebration of the innocence and optimism of youth will touch all those who embrace it.

Review

The Death Of Vivek Oji is the third novel from Nigerian-born Igbo and Tamil author Akwaeke Emezi in as many years. It opens with the death of Vivek Oji and, with graceful deftness, weaves back and forth through time and multiple perspectives to reconstruct Vivek and the space his shocking, too-soon death has left behind.

This novel is a portrait of grief. It is also a portrait of a person whose very existence is confounding to the patriarchal, ultra- conservative community of his childhood in regional Nigeria.

Throughout The Death of Vivek Oji, we get flashes of Nigeria in the wake of the death of dictator Sani Abacha, with people rioting in the streets and tensions often turning bloody over ideological disagreements. Within this space of unrest, Vivek dies.

Written with a quiet reserve, the novel pivots from the notion of self as an unfixed definition. Vivek’s parents, wider family, and girlfriends are defined through the prism of Vivek and how Vivek is refracted through their lives. Despite the multi-perspective structure, no character feels fleshed out, alive … except for Vivek.

A murder-mystery-esque tension is stoked by Vivek’s grieving and determined mother, Kavita, who is restless until she understands what has happened to her son. Unusually, and most interestingly to me, liminal themes – such as love as amorphous and boundaryless; love’s intersection with sex; and sex and its ability to give shape to the non-verbal, the inexpressible – override the logic of a murder-mystery novel. Emezi explores taboo as a jarring by-product of intersecting cultures; family as simultaneously alive and dead, genetic and chosen; the unsaid as toxic and inevitable; and grief as possessive. This novel proffers the unnameable and the world of emotion, impression and spirit as alternate spaces in which to seek truth and knowing. At times, the evocations feel heavy and obvious where they might be encompassing and sensual – fleetingness could be a feeling as well as an idea.

The Death of Vivek Oji is written in a generous, accessible manner. Emezi has given us a portrait of intersectionality which celebrates life as fragments of time. It will appeal to readers who liked Orlando, Americanah and In the Dream House. I look forward to what Emezi offers us next.


Kalinda Vary works as a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.

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