“They burned down the market the day Vivek Oji died”.
Firstly, I want to say thank you to Kristin over @Kristinkravesbooks for bringing this to my attention – it was thought provoking and heartbreakingly sad for so many different reasons, some that I definitely hadn’t anticipated – please note, I’ve tried to be as vague as possible here.
On the day the market burns down in a small town in south eastern Nigeria, Kavita opens the door to find her son Vivek dead. He’d been laid out on the veranda; his favourite chain is missing, and he’s been wrapped in material.
From there Emezi, takes the reader back through Vivek’s life and explores the grief his parents and friends suffer as they try to come to terms with loss and – in the case of Kavita – find out what happened to him.
It mixes past and present. It’s told through the eyes of the people who knew Vivek and by Vivek himself.
We’re told that Vivek was born on the day his Grandmother died, he has the same star fish shaped scar that she had on his foot. He’s raised by an overprotective but understanding mother and a distant father.
Growing up, his closest bond and friendship is with his cousin Osita. He suffers debilitating black outs as a teenager, keeping it a secret from everyone apart from Osita. His parents have a dream for him to attend university in America.
He doesn’t go, instead attending college in Nigeria until his parents pull him out fearing for his health and safety. You see, Vivek has grown his hair down past his shoulders.
It’s here the story starts to focus on identity and what it means; who we are to other people and how do you grieve a child that you never really knew. It isn’t death that’s made Vivek invisible, he’s been invisible his whole life.
“I’m not what anyone thinks I am. I never was. I didn’t have the mouth to put into words, to say what was wrong, to change things I felt needed to change. And every day it was difficult, walking around and knowing that people see me one way, knowing that they were wrong, that the real me was invisible to them.
So: if nobody sees you, are you still there?” Akwaeke Emzi
Vivek’s withdrawal into himself, leads his parents to thinking he’s ill. He’s sad, lonely and completely lost. It isn’t until he builds friendships with the daughters Nigerwives – Somto, Olunne, JuJu and Elizabeth – that he starts to find himself and begins to feel more comfortable in his own skin, helped of course by his relationship with Osita.
Driven mad by grief, Kavita is determined to find answers, she wants to know who brought him home and why her only child has died. I loved how raw Kavita’s grief was, she believed that only she had the right to grieve Vivek, that no one else could feel his loss as profoundly as she did.
For me Kavita’s grief raised interesting points around parental ownership. In her mind no one knew Vivek as well as she did. She’d given birth to him; he was her property. A view that is challenged rather bluntly by his friends when they pluck up the courage to tell her about the Vivek they knew.
Kavita has to come terms with the fact that she barely knew her son at all, he didn’t feel he could tell his parents how he felt. It’s perhaps a feeling that is universal, who could hand on heart say their parents know every detail of their life? We all have bits we keep hidden from the world. Kavita has to then get to know her son even though he isn’t there, she can only begin to grieve properly when she accepts Vivek for who he was and who he wanted to be.
Emezi carefully paints different portrayals of grief – Osita and JuJu turn to and lean on each other, his father won’t get out of bad, Osita has a period of trying to block it out.
Despite it’s title, the story does feel triumphant in places. Vivek is at peace with himself, although he’s constrained by society, Vivek does have a certain degree of freedom that comes with being happy in your own skin.
It’s a tender, vivid and realistic story of love, loss and family, it’s filled with passion and will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm