Book Club: The death of Vivek Oji

They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.

The quote above is the entirety of the first chapter. There is no spoiler alert needed; Vivek Oji dies in this book and the whole story takes us through the journey of his life until his death. It is reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold which I read almost a decade ago. We know from the start that there is a death but rather than remove the suspense it actually intensifies it- how did he die? Why did he die? What exactly happened?

The story of Vivek Oji’s death is told through multiple narratives (third person and then first person) and viewpoints while oscillating between the past and present. We are told early on that Vivek’s body was left in front of his parent’s house for his mother to find, and then the reader is sent on a journey through his life to find out the exact circumstances of his death. Vivek is born and raised in Eastern Nigeria to an Igbo father and Indian mother. He was born on the day his grandmother died, and the joy of his birth is dulled by the sorrow at her passing; a conflict that appears to plague him throughout his life.

“This is how Vivek was born, after death and into grief. It marked him, you see, it cut him down like a tree. They brought him into a home filled with incapacitating sorrow; his whole life was a mourning.”

He is of two cultures, but so are most of his friends courtesy of their mothers who are all foreigners married to Nigerian men. Also prominent is his life is his cousin Osita with whom he has a close bond. Vivek is prone to blackouts, during which he appears to disconnect from himself and reality, but the impression is that these are not caused by a medical issue but perhaps supernatural forces. He begins to disintegrate in a way that is not fully understandable and leaves his parents panicked and bewildered- he grows out his hair until he looks like a woman, refuses to eat, there are instances of him sleeping outside with the dogs and just general weirdness. Needless to say his parents are simultaneously annoyed and concerned. This leads to chaos within the external family as well as people throw in their two cents as they all try to get to the bottom of his strangeness. In the midst of all this is sex- Osita is having sex with his girlfriend and Vivek is watching, then Osita and Vivek are having sex, then Osita is having sex with someone else who kissed Vivek and this and that. Yes, the book contains incest, and it is presented in a normal casual way as though this is simply a queer relationship and not literal cousins exploring each others genitals. There is also the strong insinuation that Vivek is the reincarnation of his grandmother which then makes his relationship with his cousin even more concerning. Mama whatchu doing ma’am? All the way from the afterlife?

At the end we finally see how Vivek dies and it is up to the reader to decide whether the build up is worth is or not. It is a long windy spirally road to this point, and the death was perhaps not that dramatic as expected (some might say is that it?). Personally I largely enjoyed the journey and was not too put off by the eventual revelation.

The book has themes of homosexuality and gender identity, particularly in an environment and age that is not accepting of those who deviate from what is considered to be the norm. The writer does a good job of showing Vivek’s struggle as well as his family’s despair as they try to come to terms with his loss. His mother’s grief is particularly heart-wrenching.

One thing I will say about the book is that I enjoyed the writing and this is what kept me going. My attention was completely captured by the book even though the plot is not really my style- incest, casual sex, etc. I’ll admit that I found the story tedious after a while and I just wanted the truth to be revealed “get it over with already! damn.” The back and forth in viewpoints and timelines was annoying at times. I also did not really care for any of the characters, not even Vivek. The writing is beautiful and that’s was enough for me.

“I often wonder if I died in the best possible way — in the arms of the one who loved me the most, wearing a skin that was true.”

The death of Vivek Oji was written by Nigerian Author Awaeke Emezi and published in 2020.

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