Freshwater was the first book I read by Akwaeke Emezi, and I thought it was masterfully crafted and haunting. It demonstrates the struggles of mental health, sexuality, and spirituality. The story was original, creative, and challenged me because of its complexity. Since I tend to gravitate to deep and intense reads, I felt future books by Emezi would always be right up my alley. So I was particularly disappointed after reading her recent book, The Death of Vivek Oji.
The novel’s opening chapters begin in a small town in southeastern Nigeria with the discovery of the bloody dead body of Vivek Oji by his mother, Kavitha, in front of their house. After this shocking and unsettling sighting, Kavitha vows to unearth the circumstances around Vivek’s death by retracing his steps in his final days. She constantly pesters his close friends, who are initially not forthcoming with details. I found it interesting that Kavitha can easily sense that Vivek’s friends are uneasy when she questions them about the facts surrounding his death, but yet cannot discern Vivek’s state of mind while he was still alive. Months before his death, it is evident that Vivek is struggling with depression, with his lackluster energy, lack of appetite, weight loss, and refusal to cut his hair. I guess the question I have is, was this just missed, blissful ignorance, or seeing what you desire? I think the answer is seeing only what you want to see. Vivek is the only child of a Nigerian father, who is emotionally distant, and an Indian mother, who is smothering and lays too many expectations on his shoulders. These expectations suffocate Vivek and prevent him from being his authentic truth, which Vivek shares only with his cousin, Osita, and a group of friends he has known his whole life. These childhood friends have a common bond of being children of expat mothers.
The story touches on domestic violence, a chaotic political environment, expat life, Igbo culture, gender dysphoria, sexuality, mental health, and religion. It is written with multiple points of view and in the first and third person with frequent flashbacks. At times, the different points of view were distracting because they did not add to the story or push it forward. I heard so much from Osita that it felt like he was the main character, and this what I found most annoying because I wanted to hear so much more from Vivek in the first person! I wanted to learn of all his struggles firsthand. Some people might say that the author intended for us to hear little from Vivek and discover his story through other people. What do you think?
The one thing I did enjoy was the addition of the expats’ stories. It was nice to see what life was like for foreigners in Nigeria. I love this so much because I migrated to the US, and I could connect with their stories a little. This book was definitely much more straightforward to follow than Emezi’s first book, Freshwater, but it just did not hit the spot for me!