Akwaeke Emezi’s latest offering is an elegant examination of crippling social expectations and the courage it takes to disregard them
Akwaeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji bears echoes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold as it explores the mysterious sequence of events surrounding the protagonist’s death. The only difference is that Emezi’s novel isn’t concerned with attributing blame for the titular character’s death. Instead, Vivek Oji’s death is portrayed as yet another form of erasure or enforced invisibility that he experiences in his brief yet emotionally turbulent life.
The Death of Vivek Oji is set against the backdrop of the violence that gripped Nigeria in the 1990s after the country embarked on a bumpy transition from military rule to civilian democracy. The Nigerwives – an association of foreign-born wives married to Nigerian men – remain on the fringes of the raging political storms brewing in the country. As the only child of an Indian woman who is married to an Igbo man, Vivek finds himself chained from an early age to the comforts and idiosyncrasies of this sheltered community. As time goes by, he cultivates a private utopia that gives him the space to explore his identity on his own terms. On the day that his mother discovers his body on their doorstep, the web of seclusion that Vivek has spun around himself comes apart and his family must bear the weight of the secrets that he has concealed from them. Through a series of illuminating flashbacks, Emezi opens a vista onto the chaotic circumstances that shaped Vivek’s choices and eventually led to his demise.
The author’s strength lies in the deft handling of narrative shifts, which give readers a glimpse of Vivek’s life from the skewed yet meaningful perspective of his friends and family. By allowing each character to seize control of the narrative and share their observations with readers, the author creates a captivating mosaic that depicts the many flavours of Vivek’s life. It would have been difficult to accomplish this feat if the author had opted for a third-person narrative perspective.
Each character’s perspective seeks to examine and consequently reassess the conflicts and complications that arose in Vivek’s life. In a few chapters, Vivek’s spirit directly addresses readers and reflects on the challenges he faced in life. This technique bears the risk of allowing the narrative to veer off course, but Emezi knows when to tighten the reins and succeeds in creating a finely nuanced portrait of the main character. In some sections of The Death of Vivek Oji, readers are embroiled in a mother’s quest for answers about her enigmatic, fiercely rebellious son. At other stages, the novel highlights the arduous attempts made by Vivek’s ‘logical family’ to conceal secrets that his biological family may find unpleasant.
Emezi portrays the challenges in Vivek’s life with poignancy and emotional sensitivity. The author weaves Igbo spirituality to add depth to his character and provide an explanation for his suffering.
Vivek Oji’s tragic fate is sealed from the first chapter. A novel that begins with the titular character’s death stands the danger of being billed as a tale of loss and despair. Nevertheless, Vivek still remains the beating heart of the story and his death is used as a motif to understand the constraints that were imposed on him while he was alive.
According to Vivek, “life was like being dragged through concrete in circles” and he assumed “death would be the heaviest thing of all”. Emezi portrays the challenges in Vivek’s life with poignancy and emotional sensitivity. The author weaves Igbo spirituality to add depth to his character and provide an explanation for his suffering. For instance, readers are told that Vivek, who was born on the day that his grandmother died, maybe a reincarnated form of the aged matriarch because he bears the same starfish-shaped scar on his foot that she bore. Similarly, Emezi also doesn’t allow us to forget that Vivek’s parents didn’t give him a ‘reincarnation name’.
Throughout the novel, his disorienting blackouts as a child – which Vivek’s spirit refers to as “small mercies” that allowed him to escape his surroundings - are constantly perceived as a sign of a deep-seated spiritual discrepancy. Emezi is evidently building on the themes explored in the author’s previous novel, Freshwater, which drew upon the intimate link between physical and spiritual realms. However, the author’s latest offering isn’t a cautionary tale that laments the demise of Igbo spirituality. Readers are never made to feel that Vivek’s behaviour is anything other than a sincere quest for his true self. The novel dissects the private chaos of his life as he embarks on a long and arduous struggle to grow comfortable in his own skin as someone who doesn’t conform to gender norms. Vivek’s journey to self-discovery compels him to make daring lifestyle choices and steers him towards relationships that often transgress social boundaries.
Interestingly, Vivek neither internalises his challenges nor feels the burning desire to share the perils and pitfalls of his personal voyage with others, except for a few friends and confidantes. His reluctance to talk freely about his inner dilemmas appears somewhat liberating as he doesn’t have to offer reassurances and explanations for his actions. While many readers may find this to be a self-serving process, it is refreshing to see that the focus remains on the internal struggle of a non-binary protagonist rather than the reactions of family members and friends. Even so, some characters in the novel are unduly chastised for turning a blind eye to Vivek’s search for a suitable identity.
An elegant examination of crippling social expectations and the courage it takes to disregard them, The Death of Vivek Oji is an unerringly humane novel that reminds us of the importance of being faithful to ourselves.
The Death of Vivek Oji
Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Publisher: Riverhead Books
The writer is the author of Typically Tanya