Book Review: The Death of Vivek Oji
“They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died”
It’s no surprise that this is a heavy, sad story to read. But it’s also brilliantly structured, filled with complex characters, and written in a style that breezes along.
SUMMARY: One afternoon, in a town in southeastern Nigeria, a mother opens her front door to discover her son’s body, wrapped in colorful fabric, at her feet. What follows is the tumultuous, heart-wrenching story of one family’s struggle to understand a child whose spirit is both gentle and mysterious. Raised by a distant father and an understanding but overprotective mother, Vivek suffers disorienting blackouts, moments of disconnection between self and surroundings. As adolescence gives way to adulthood, Vivek finds solace in friendships with the warm, boisterous daughters of the Nigerwives, foreign-born women married to Nigerian men. But Vivek’s closest bond is with Osita, the worldly, high-spirited cousin whose teasing confidence masks a guarded private life. As their relationship deepens—and Osita struggles to understand Vivek’s escalating crisis—the mystery gives way to a heart-stopping act of violence in a moment of exhilarating freedom.
Much of the book is concerned with Vivek’s life growing up in Nigeria, but told predominantly through the eyes of characters around him (his parents, his cousin, his friends, etc). This puts the emphasis on how other people view his “strange” behavior, and that’s kind of the point. How well do we really know someone, even someone so close? How well can we empathize with someone so “different” than us.
The structure is brilliant because we know that he’s going to die the entire time, giving a layer of depth and emotion to all the scenes preceding this monumental event. Since it’s a story centered around grief and loss, the moments of joy and life sprinkled throughout help show us characters in a different light and also highlight the sadness of Vivek’s death. The story also jumps around in time, juxtaposing scenes post-death with events leading up to it. There’s a lot of moving in time, a lot of moving pieces, and a lot of characters. And yet it all flows so well and I never felt lost, which speaks to the power of the story and the storyteller.
There’s also a murder mystery element to the story, as Vivek’s body is found naked and wrapped in a cloth on his parent’s doorstep. This mystery deepens as we get closer to the end of the book, ultimately revealing itself in the final earth-shattering pages.
I’m speaking vaguely here. Yes, the death isn’t a spoiler (it’s in the title and the first line). But the shocking reasons behind it, as well as the complexities of the relationships and character dynamics in the book, should absolutely be experienced in the moment as you’re reading. There’s no way I could discuss it as well as the author writes it…so go read it!