"…how difficult it was to dig his own grave with the bones of his son."
Can you imagine holding up your son's dead body? Can you imagine being a mother and cradling your son's bloodied head in your hands? As the name of the book suggests, the story is about Vivek's death. Despite that, his death is not the primary focus of the book. It is the unifying front.
"Why are you so afraid? Because something is different from what you know?"
Set in the 1990s, it is a coming-of-age story about a young boy in Nigeria coming to terms with who he is versus who he should be. Societal norms and traditional values play a large part in dictating Vivek's life from an early age. He has a rocky relationship with his cousin (who was also his best friend). His father is distant and his mother is over-protective. Vivek struggles to be himself.
The author, Awaeke Emezi's heart-wrenching tale of empathy, loss and despair, Vivek's life is revealed in flashbacks with occasional interruptions from the time after death. It is told from both the first and third-person perspectives of different people. Some of their thoughts are cruel, some are cowardly and most are selfish. The book paints a stark image of a then-Nigerian society; its people, customs, spirituality and their lives. I especially admired chapters that were written from Vivek's perspective. Through his perspectives, Emezi stunningly described some thoughts, inner workings of a very troubled, sad, and defeated young man.
Although the book describes Vivek's struggles vividly, I felt a lack of details explaining certain situations Vivek found himself in. Perhaps Emezi thought her readers would read between the lines and infer? Or make an educated guess? Regardless, the open-ended nature that accompanied the 'characters' actions and their thought processes were intriguing to read.
"…people don't react well to their power being beaten out of them."
With divergent characters and yet their predictable ideas, the book sheds light on disguised misogyny, superstitions, religious fanaticism and patriarchy. Emezi's book had a subtle undertone of what went wrong when people were denied the freedom to be themselves, mirroring much of our world's problems. What I loved about this book were the unflinching descriptions of human failures.
Vivek's tale is entangled with the stories of everyone around him, his friends and family. His friendships and relationships with them were wonderfully written, their fierce loyalty and the peace they brought him. After his death, the heartbreaking details are gradually revealed and we realise that people aren't what they seem.
Published by Penguin Random House in August 2020, The Death of Vivek Oji by Awaeke Emezi was an instant bestseller in New York Times.