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Review: The mesmerizing mystery of ‘The Death of Vivek Oji’: Not how he died but how he lived

Akwaeke Emezi, the author of "The Death of Vivek Oji."
(Scottie O)

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“If nobody sees you, are you still there?” Vivek Oji asks from beyond the grave in Akwaeke Emezi’s powerful new novel, “The Death of Vivek Oji.” It’s a question that ripples outward into the rest of the book, drawing readers and characters into a search for Vivek’s true self. Though the book opens with the ominous news of his death and is framed as a kind of mystery around it, the truth we spiral toward has far more to do with Vivek’s life, its secrets and its moments of unfettered joy.

Early in the novel, set in southeastern Nigeria during the 1980s and ’90s, we learn that Vivek was born on the same day that his grandmother Ahunna died. Chika, Vivek’s father and Ahunna’s son, noticed a scar on the newborn baby’s foot that resembled one on Ahunna’s; in Igbo spirituality, wherein the dead are reborn back into the family, this is a potential sign of reincarnation: “How else could that scar have entered the world on flesh if it had not left in the first place? A thing cannot be in two places at once.” Only after Vivek’s death does Chika allow himself to take this sign seriously.

We witness much of Vivek’s life from the sidelines, through the eyes of people who loved him. From Osita, Vivek’s cousin and oldest friend, we learn about Vivek’s childhood scuffles, about Chika sending him to a military academy to toughen the sensitivity out of him, about his strange fugue states as a teenager. From Kavita, Vivek’s mother, we learn of his breakdown in university, his weight loss and refusal to cut his hair, and Kavita finding his body naked, wrapped in cloth, his head bloody.

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Juju, a childhood acquaintance of Vivek’s, becomes a friend in their young adulthood, and she shares with us much of his transformation, his coming into his own. Emezi has an incredible talent for moving fluidly through time, often using characters’ memories as triggers for cascading flashbacks, nesting dolls of memory, and in alternating chapters — some narrated by Osita, some by Vivek, most in the third person — we’re given pieces of the puzzle that was Vivek, but never too much at once.

Cover of "The Death of Vivek Oji."
(Riverhead Books)

In their autobiographical novel, “Freshwater,” Emezi explores the relationship between the physical and spiritual realms, between the Western concept of mental illness and the Igbo idea of the ogbanje, a human-possessing trickster spirit. In “Vivek Oji,” they delve again into the duality of body and spirit, but with a new focus on gender. “Did ogbanje even have a gender to begin with? Gender is, after all, such a human thing,” Emezi wrote in a 2018 essay for the Cut. Vivek’s gender variance seems related to Ahunna’s reincarnated spirit, but it takes many years for him to begin to verbally express things he knows instinctively. Discerning readers, however, might recognize some signs early on.

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“Picture: the boy, shirtless, placing necklaces against his chest, draping them over his silver chain, clipping his ears with gold earrings, his hair tumbling over his shoulders,” Osita narrates. “He looks like a bride, half naked, partially undressed… Osita wished, much later, that he’d told Vivek the truth then, that he was so beautiful he made the air around him dull.”

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Instead, Osita snapped at his cousin to remove the jewelry before they were caught. Years on, shame is still a powerful force: When the cousins see one another for the first time in a couple of years, Osita is shocked by Vivek’s long hair, yet drawn to its softness. Still, he reacts with anger and disgust when Vivek implies that his cousin might have a boyfriend at university.

Shame and denial are clearly the cause of much harm in Vivek’s life, but Emezi shows us how these forces work to the detriment of other townspeople too: One teenager never talks about her father’s alcoholism, hiding her hurt behind a mask of anger; a mother keeps her abusive husband’s second family from her daughter, who ends up stumbling across them one day, without warning; a vulcanizer whose wife isn’t getting pregnant refuses to get his own fertility checked, instead pursuing other women — only to panic when he realizes that he’s left his wife alone in the middle of a riot.

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Vivek, however, begins to come into his own with the aid of a set of young women, the daughters of Kavita’s friends, who draw him out of the depths of his depression by seeing him for who he wishes to be — who he already is but hasn’t been able to express fully yet. Even Osita comes around soon enough, as his relationship with Vivek gains a new intimacy. These friends create a kind of chosen family together, one that accepts Vivek rather than trying to fix him.

Vivek’s friends make him feel whole, but the novel’s greatest strength lies in creating a community of fully realized people, each touched in some profound way by Vivek’s existence. “The Death of Vivek Oji” is a relatively slim book that contains as wide a range of experience as any saga — a little bit like Vivek’s brief yet gloriously expansive life.

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Masad is a books and culture critic and author of “All My Mother’s Lovers.”

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The Death of Vivek Oji
Akwaeke Emezi
Riverhead: 256 pages, $27


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