The acclaimed author of Freshwater returns with a novel about Vivek Oji, a Nigerian youth whose outward male appearance belied his female gender identity, a disconnect that isolated him from his community and family, members of which remember Vivek's life in flashbacks.
Where Freshwater refuses traditional storytelling, Vivek Oji adopts the form—though never the spirit—of traditional crime fiction, seeming to glory in the genre's conventions before slyly subverting them ... It's always impressive to see a writer transform between novels in this way, but Vivek Oji would be impressive regardless. Emezi deftly tucks doomed romance and family drama into mystery, then, slowly but surely, reveals their true aim: to construct a portrait of love triumphant over death ... Emezi abandons death to focus on the complicated joys of Vivek's life, which I very much do not want to spoil for the reader, but which are joyful indeed ... If Emezi keeps one norm from crime fiction, it is their use of stock characters ... Literary writers and critic often scorn characterization this flat, but Emezi uses their stock characters effectively as points of contrast to the mutable, grieving Kavita and Osita—and, more importantly, to Vivek. Instead of getting flattened by death, Vivek becomes more vivid on each page. He glows like the sun, impossible to look at directly yet utterly charismatic. I missed him when the novel was done.
Vivek’s death is emphasized so often that it acquires an odd kind of mystery, like the blurry edges of a legend. Although the presence of spiritual forces is muted in The Death of Vivek Oji, the possibility of ancestral reincarnation frames the story in tantalizing ways ... The Death of Vivek Oji swirls around incidents, before and after Vivek’s passing, not so much rising toward its climax as gradually accruing power. Again and again, we learn of events long before we understand their cause or significance. Such a presentation could easily become a muddle, but Emezi is a remarkably assured and graceful guide through this family’s calamity of silence ... There’s just no way to finish this powerful novel and not feel more deeply than ever the ghastly consequences of intolerance. But in these intense pages of tightly coiled desire and dread, Emezi has once again encouraged us to embrace a fuller spectrum of human experience.
Emezi has a gift for prose that is often as visceral, tender and heartbreaking as what it describes ... This novel shares Freshwater’s thematic concerns, in particular in investigating ideas of selfhood that transcend the boundaries of the body ... while the novel sets out to solve the mystery of Oji’s death, what gives it power is how it uncovers the story of a person shielded by the peace of self-acceptance against the pain of the world. Here is proof of what good fiction does best: it is an antidote to invisibility.