The Death of Vivek OjiThe Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
My rating: 5/5 cats
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Freshwater was a very stylized bit of emotional brutality whose jaggedy flow i loved but totally understand why other readers might not. this one, though—this is how you win book awards, court book clubs, AND make your goddamned name.

this is an undeniable stunner.

you’ve read the title of this book, so i don’t need to worry that i will spoil anything by saying that this is about…the death of vivek oji, in both the literal and figurative senses. but it is NOT 248 pages of him gasping out his last breaths while his skin cools and his heart stops—his death; the how and why of that single moment, is not the primary focus, it’s more like the maypole around which the colorful narrative strands of vivek’s before-and-after are wrapped: the details of his short life and what losing him does to those he leaves behind. like your own death, you never forget his is there, looming, but it’s only the anchor; the backbone holding all the storymeat in place.

it’s very confident and unhurried in its storytelling; nonlinear without being confusing, full of empathy and tenderness, beautifully written and accessible, with some of the most relatable depictions of grief i’ve ever read.

It was impossible not to miss him when I was with her; it was as if someone had driven a shovel into my chest, then levered it out again, taking up all it could hold, leaving a screaming mess behind.

it’s a departure from the broken-glass tone and structure of Freshwater but shares its themes of sexual and gender identity, and the idea of permeable borders between bodily states, life and death, etc. however, it is much more straightforward than their debut; a coming-of-age type of story about friendship, family, first love, courage and conviction.

like Freshwater, there’s an emphasis on otherness, but here cast in a much more positive light—whereas Freshwater was all about alienation and isolation, here we have the the nigerwives: a group of foreign-born women married to nigerian men and raising their children in a country not their own. these women turn their otherness into a bond—building a community out of what sets them apart and providing an extended, chosen family for their children.

these children of the nigerwives—vivek and his friends—were so charmingly written, their relationships sweet and light and fiercely loyal. it’s a bit like seanan mcguire’s wayward children series sans magic—these mixed-race, sexually spectrummy, supportive oddball kinds of kids, most especially twin sisters olunne and somto reminding me of sumi and her confection-ate ways:

Somto swiped a fingerful of icing from another and licked it. “You don’t have to eat the whole thing,” she said. “She still hasn’t learned how to put a normal amount of sugar in them.”

I put the cupcake down and shook my head. “I can feel my teeth rotting already.”

Olunne leaned over and picked the sugar dragonfly off the cupcake, popping it into her mouth. That was how we found each other again, in a blocked-off room filled with yellowing light: two bubblegum fairies there to drag me out of my cave, carrying oversweet wands. I don’t know how deep I would have sunk if not for them. I wish I’d told them more often how much that mattered to me.

the novel alternates between first-person POVs of vivek and his cousin osita with third-person om-narr chapters weaving between them, and emezi balances the different voices and timelines well, building tension by doling out hints and foreshadowing without letting it clutter up the narrative flow. it’s such smooth, accomplished storytelling, all tender hopes and palpable griefs, and i am so ready for more from them.

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