Welcome to Group Text, a monthly column for readers and book clubs about the novels, memoirs and short-story collections that make you want to talk, ask questions and dwell in another world for a little bit longer.
In a small Nigerian town, the body of a young man turns up on the doorstep of his family’s home. How did he die? Who was he while he was alive? How will he be remembered?
I can’t wait to discuss this book with someone! It’s a puzzle wrapped in beautiful language, raising questions of identity and loyalty that are as unanswerable as they are important.
There are many moving passages in Akwaeke Emezi’s third novel, THE DEATH OF VIVEK OJI (Riverhead, 256 pp., $27), but one sticks with me. It’s the moment when a grieving mother looks back on her son’s final meal at home. (Hours later, she will find his broken body on her welcome mat.)
Emezi writes, “Of course he picked out his three cubes of sugar, let them dissolve into the milk; of course he ate the cornflakes quickly — he’d never liked them soggy — then tipped the bowl to his mouth and drank the sweetened milk. Kavita remembered every second of it as if she was back at the table with him: the last time she would ever watch her child feed himself. That act of putting nourishment into his body — it was such an alive thing to do.”
If you’ve loved, lived with or had breakfast with a young man of a certain age, you can picture the scene: the vulnerable column of Vivek’s neck as he tips his head back, the bob of his Adam’s apple as he gulps. You know what’s coming — it’s right there in the title — but you still hold out hope that Vivek will stay home, safe with his mom. He could be your son or your brother; you wouldn’t be surprised if he belched when he put down his bowl.
Emezi’s steamroller of a story is about what Vivek’s family doesn’t see — or doesn’t want to see — while he is alive, and whether or not that blindness contributes to his death. The reader understands that Vivek’s long hair and lipstick are clues to something Kavita doesn’t have words to discuss. Neither does her husband, brother-in-law or sister-in-law, whose fellow church members attempt a “deliverance” to flog the “demon” out of Vivek.
“Stop trying to fix me,” Vivek begs. “Just stop. It’s enough.”
Vivek’s life unfurls in a series of flashbacks — boys on bikes, SAT prep classes, military school — punctuated by occasional interjections from beyond the grave. This storytelling tool might feel like a cudgel in the hands of a less skillful writer but Emezi employs it like a dainty paintbrush, gently and sparingly. Vivek tells us, “I’m not what anyone thinks I am. I never was. I didn’t have the mouth to put it into words, to say what was wrong, to change the things I felt I needed to change. And every day it was difficult, walking around and knowing that people saw me one way, knowing that they were wrong, so completely wrong, that the real me was invisible to them. It didn’t even exist to them.”
Redemption comes from other narrators — Vivek’s cousin Osita, and childhood friends who are daughters of fellow expatriates like Kavita. (Emezi sets up layers of outsiders, then steps back to let them gravitate toward one another.) These characters can’t save Vivek from scorn but they see him, embrace him and lift him up in the way of friends who transcend family. Their dance is what makes “The Death of Vivek Oji” feel like a beginning instead of an ending.
In one of Vivek’s sections, he says, “Alone is a feeling you can get used to, and it’s hard to believe in a better alternative.” With this dazzling, devastating story of coming-of-age and coming out, Emezi gives us hope for a better alternative and language to make it happen.
What do you think is the significance of Vivek’s scar? Of his blackouts?
Emezi peppers the book with language that may be unfamiliar to American readers. How did it add to your experience of entering the Ojis’ world, or did the unfamiliar terms give you wahala? (Translation: trouble.)
“The Lovely Bones,” by Alice Sebold. Our critic wrote, “At first it sounds like a high-concept movie, one of those supernatural heart-tuggers like ‘Ghost’ or ‘The Sixth Sense’: the story of a teenage girl’s rape and murder, and the fallout those events have on her family, as narrated from heaven by the dead girl herself.” Like Emezi, Sebold pulls off this unusual perspective with grace.
“This Is How It Always Is,” by Laurie Frankel. Frankel’s novel is the story of a large family whose youngest member is trans. Out of an abundance of good intentions, having caught what our reviewer called “a whiff of homophobia” in their town, the Walsh-Adams clan relocates to Seattle, where they expect a more accepting environment for Claude (formerly Poppy). Their decision to hide the story of Claude’s birth starts a ripple effect that becomes a tsunami reminiscent of the one that hits the reader in “The Death of Vivek Oji.”