Emezi’s Freshwater was an incredible read and a real insight into a cultural perspective, taking you inside it and experiencing it, so I was very much looking forward to this next work.
Though we learn that Vivek is dead from the cover and in the opening pages, the novel is in a sense a mystery as the details around the death are not revealed until the end. The novel is set in Nigeria, in a community of mostly mixed race families.
The narrative is multi perspective, told through the voice of Vivek, his cousin and close friend Osita and a third-person omniscient narrator. The first chapter is one sentence:
They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.
The market burning down provides a beginning, a middle and an ending, it features in exactly those places, here as a marker or a clue, in the middle as an observation by a previously unknown character whose wife runs a stall in the middle of the market and at the end, when Vivek’s final day is shared.
The first half of the book we get to know the families, Chika, his brother Ekene, married to Mary, then later Chika’s Indian wife Kavita, mother to Vivek. The narrative tells the story of their marriage, of how they try to raise their only child. Kavita is part of a group of women referred to as the Nigerwives.
She had learned to cook Nigerian food from her friends – a group of women, foreign like her, who were married to Nigerian men and were aunties to each other’s children. They belonged to an organisation called Nigerwives, which helped them assimilate into these new lives so far away from the countries they’d come from. They weren’t wealthy expats, at least not the ones we knew. They didn’t come to work for oil companies; they simply came for their husbands, for their families.
Through the friendships of the mothers, Osita and Vivek become friends with JuJu and Elisabeth. Among themselves, away from school or family and outside of society, they are already a group who is different, and with each other, they are accepting, able to express themselves, though they have each inherited varying degrees of conditioning from their mixed parentage.
Vivek is sent away to school, about which we learn very little, we know he is unhappy and bears scars.
The narrative explores the development of their friendships and sexuality, interspersed with the present day obsession of Kavita, determined to find out how her son’s body mysteriously turned up on their front veranda wrapped in a fabric.
Chika didn’t want to ask any question. Kavita, though, was made of nothing but questions, hungry questions bending her into a shape that was starving for answers.
Maybe it was intentional, but in creating the element of mystery, much about the character of Vivek is held back, perhaps to recreate the effect of what the parent might have experienced, but for me personally, I found it disappointing that the character of Vivek was compromised and an opportunity missed to inhabit that character more.
The deliberate obscuring heightens the effect of the reveal, but sacrifices the opportunity to share something more profound with readers. It’s difficult to develop empathy for a character, when so much is held back and when the potential is clearly there.
That was why they’d kept it from their parents, to protect Vivek from those who didn’t understand him. They barely understood him themselves, but they loved him, and that had been enough.
It’s a novel of secrets and lies and the debate of truth versus respect, in that belief that the two can’t coexist. And the safety inherent within a fear of judgement by some, versus the danger of a lack of fear in others. A theme that is likely to continue to be explored by Emezi.
“Look,” she said, “eventually all secrets come out. It’s just a matter of time. And the longer it takes, the worse it is in the end.”
As I read, I can feel what I am bringing to the narrative, where I want the author to go and by the end they do go some of the way, but not all. And that is on me, it is asking an already courageous writer to go further, to places that us readers, like sports fans, might never go ourselves, but from the benches we shout in encouragement. So I leave the last words to the author, as a reminder to us all of what this is.
I had to remember why I was making this work. I wasn’t making it for institutional validation. I was making this work for specific people — all the people living in these realities feeling lonely and wanting to die because they’re like, this world thinks I’m crazy and I don’t belong here. All the little trans babies who are just like, there is no world in which my parents will love me and accept me. There’s a mission to all of this. Akwaeke Emezi
My review of Freshwater by Awaeke Emezi
N.B. This book was an ARC (advance reader copy) kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.