"Electrifying." — O: The Oprah Magazine
Named a Best Book of 2020 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, USA TODAY, Vanity Fair, Elle, Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, Shondaland, Teen Vogue, Vulture, Lit Hub, Bustle, Electric Literature, and BookPage
What does it mean for a family to lose a child they never really knew?
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.
Propulsively readable, teeming with unforgettable characters, The Death of Vivek Oji is a novel of family and friendship that challenges expectations—a dramatic story of loss and transcendence that will move every reader.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||8.40(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.30(d)|
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Read an Excerpt
They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.
If this story was a stack of photographs-the old kind, rounded at the corners and kept in albums under the glass and lace doilies of center tables in parlors across the country-it would start with Vivek's father, Chika. The first print would be of him riding a bus to the village to visit his mother; it would show him dangling an arm out of the window, feeling the air push against his face and the breeze entering his smile.
Chika was twenty and as tall as his mother, six feet of red skin and suntouched-clay hair, teeth like polished bones. The women on the bus looked openly at him, his white shirt billowing out from the back of his neck in a cloud, and they smiled and whispered among themselves because he was beautiful. He had looks that should have lived forever, features he passed down to Vivek-the teeth, the almond eyes, the smooth skin-features that died with Vivek.
The next photograph in the stack would be of Chika's mother, Ahunna, sitting on her veranda when her son arrived, a bowl of udara beside her. Ahunna's wrapper was tied around her waist, leaving her breasts bare, and her skin was redder than Chika's, deeper and older, like a pot that had been bled over in its firing. She had fine wrinkles around her eyes, hair plaited into tight cornrows, and her left foot was bandaged and propped up on a stool.
"Mama! Gini mere?!" Chika cried when he saw her, running up the veranda stairs. "Are you all right? Why didn't you send someone?"
"There was no need to disturb you," Ahunna replied, splitting open an udara and sucking out its flesh. The large compound of her village house stretched around them-old family land, a whole legacy in earth that she'd held onto ever since Chika's father died several years ago. "I stepped on a stick when I was on the farm," she explained, as her son sat down beside her. "Mary took me to the hospital. Everything is fine now." She spat udara seeds from her mouth like small black bullets.
Mary was his brother Ekene's wife, a full and soft girl with cheeks like small clouds. They had married a few months ago, and Chika had watched Mary float down the aisle, white lace gathered around her body and a veil obscuring her pretty mouth. Ekene had been waiting for her at the altar, his spine stern and proud, his skin gleaming like wet loam against the tarred black of his suit. Chika had never seen his brother look so tender, the way his long fingers trembled, the love and pride simmering in his eyes. Mary had to tilt her head up to look at Ekene as they recited their vows-the men in their family were always tall-and Chika had watched her throat curve, her face glowing as his brother lifted up the tulle and kissed her. After the wedding, Ekene decided to move out of the village and into town, into the bustle and noise of Owerri, so Mary was staying with Ahunna while Ekene went to set up their new life. Chika stole a glance at Mary from the veranda as she watered the hibiscus garden, her hair tied back in a frayed knot, wearing a loose cotton dress in a faded floral print. She looked like home, like something he could fall into, whirling through her hips and thighs and breasts.
His mother frowned at him. "Mind yourself," she warned, as if she could read his mind. "That's your brother's wife."
Chika's face burned. "I don't know what you're talking about, Mama."
Ahunna didn't blink. "Go and find your own wife, just don't start any wahala in this house with this girl. Your brother is coming to collect her soon."
Chika reached out and took her hand. "I'm not starting anything, Mama." She scoffed but didn't pull her hand away. They sat like that, another picture, as the evening pulled across the veranda and sky, and something boiled slow and hot in Chika, thrumming at the back of his throat. This was before Vivek, before the fire, before Chika would discover exactly how difficult it was to dig his own grave with the bones of his son.
When Ahunna's wound healed, it left a scar on the instep of her foot-a dark brown patch shaped like a limp starfish. Her son Ekene came and took his wife to their new house in Owerri, a white bungalow with flame-of-the-forest growing by the gate and guava trees lined up by the fence, and Chika visited them there. These would be the happy pictures: Mary smiling in her kitchen; Mary plaiting her hair with extensions and singing with her full throat in her church choir; Mary and Chika gisting in the kitchen while she cooked. Ekene had no patience for talkative women and he wasn't the jealous type, so he didn't mind that his junior brother and his wife got along so well.
As for Chika, the thing boiling inside him took on a new heat whenever he was around Mary. It sang and bubbled and scalded him where no one could see. He joked to his family that he just liked being in a house with a woman in it, rather than his empty bachelor flat, and Mary believed him-until one afternoon when he stepped behind her as she was cooking and put his mouth on the back of her neck. She whirled and started beating him with the long wooden spoon she was using to make garri.
"Are you mad?" she shouted, flecks of hot garri spitting off her spoon and burning the forearms he'd raised to block her blows.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"Sorry! Sorry!" He dropped to his knees, bowing his head under his arms. "Biko, Mary, stop! I won't do it again, I swear!"
She paused, breathing hard, her face confused and hurt.
"What's your problem, ehn? Why must you try and spoil everything? Ekene and I are happy, you hear? We're happy."
"I know. I know." Chika stood up slowly, one reversed knee at a time, keeping his hands up and looking into her eyes. "I know. I don't want to spoil anything. Please, forgive me."
Mary shook her head. "You can't continue coming here if this is what you're coming for." Chika wanted to reach out to her, but her knuckles were tight around the spoon.
"I know," he said, keeping his voice soft.
"I'm not joking," she said. "Don't come back with this nonsense."
Chika looked at the tears hanging wet inside her eyes and he put his hands down.
"I hear you. I swear, from now on, you're just my sister." He felt her eyes on him as he reached for his car keys. "I'm going. I'll see you next week. Please, let's just forget today, okay?"
Mary said nothing. She just watched as he left, her fingers relaxing against the curved wood of the handle only when the door closed behind him.
For the next several months, Chika kept his distance from Owerri. He got a job as an accountant at a glass factory in Ngwa, the market town he had moved to when he left the village. The company doctor there was Dr. Khatri, a pale Indian man with shocks of grey hair at his temples. Sometimes, Dr. Khatri would bring in his niece, Kavita, to help with administrative work. The first time Chika met her, he'd gone in to see the doctor about a cough and Kavita was at the front desk with files heaped around her, frowning as she flipped through them. She was a small woman with dark brown skin and a thick braid of black hair hanging past her waist. That morning, she was wearing an orange cotton dress; she looked like a burning sunset, and Chika knew immediately that his story would end with her, that he would drown in her large liquid eyes and it would be the perfect way to go. There was nothing boiling in him, just a loud and clear exhale, a weight of peace wrapping around his heart. Kavita looked up and smiled at him, and somehow Chika found the liver to ask her to lunch. It surprised them both when she said yes, as did the affection that unfurled between them in the weeks that followed.
When it became apparent how serious their courtship was getting, the doctor invited Chika to their home, where Kavita served them tea and small bowls of murukku. Her wrists were delicate, and her dark hair rained off her shoulders. Dr. Khatri told Chika how, after her parents died, Kavita had passed into his care, eventually coming with him all the way from India to Nigeria. "We had some . . . family problems back in Delhi," he said. "Because of her father's caste. It was better to make a fresh start." Chika nodded. That was the same reason he chose not to live in the same town as any of his family. Fresh starts were good; that separateness was where you could feel yourself, where you could learn who you were apart from everyone else.
Picture: the young couple in the back garden after dinner, walking along a line of bare rosebushes, Kavita running her fingers gently over the branches.
"I can't wait for these to bloom," she said. "I used to hate the smell of roses back when we lived in Delhi, but my uncle loves them, and now-it's strange-all they do is remind me of home."
Picture: Chika's hand covering hers, serrated leaves crushed under their palms, a quiet kiss where their breaths tangle.
Afterward, Chika went to the village and told his mother about Kavita. "I want you to meet her," he said, avoiding her eyes. Ahunna watched him, his bent shoulders, the way he kept taking his hands out of his pockets and putting them back in. Children never really change, she thought, no matter how much they grow up.
"Bring the girl," Ahunna said. "Nsogbu adighi.." She went back to peeling yam, sitting on a low stool in front of the basin holding the tubers, throwing the rind out into the backyard for her goats. Chika stood above her, a dazed smile spreading across his face.
"Yes, Ma," he eventually said. "Daalu."
It was only then he finally felt ready to visit Owerri, to share the news with Mary and Ekene, now that he could go to their house with a clean conscience. He and Mary never spoke of what had happened, that moment of misplaced desire in a sweltering kitchen.
Three months later, Chika proposed to Kavita in the rose garden at her uncle's house. By then, pink and red blooms filled out the branches and the air was thick with scent. Kavita smiled, blinking back tears as she threw her arms around his clay neck and kissed him yes. A few days later, the families started arguing about the dowry. Chika tried to explain to Dr. Khatri that it was the husband's family who paid the brideprice, but the old doctor was enraged by the very idea. "We came all the way from India with Kavita's dowry! It is her inheritance. I cannot let her go without it as if she's worth nothing to us!"
"And I cannot accept a brideprice from my wife's father!"
Hearing that word-father-Dr. Khatri teared up, and their argument hiccupped. "She is truly a daughter to me," he said, his voice thick.
Ahunna rolled her eyes and stepped in. "You men like shouting too much. Just let the dowries cancel each other, and no one pays anything." Dr. Khatri drew in breath to protest, but she held up a hand. "You can keep Kavita's dowry for her children. I don't want to hear pim about this again."
So that was that. Kavita's dowry was a small collection of heavy gold jewelry that her mother had brought into her own marriage, passed down through the women before her.
Picture: Chika with Kavita in their bedroom, newlywed, the heavy necklaces and bangles pouring over his hands. "I don't even know what to say. It's like the treasure you read about in books."
Kavita took them from him and returned them to their box. "For our children," she reminded him, not knowing there would only be one. "Let's just forget it's even here."
Most of the jewelry stayed in that box for the next two decades, nestled against the deep red velvet, gemstones and gold links gleaming in the dark. There were times when Chika and Kavita sold one small piece or another, when things were difficult, but they held on to most of it, planning to use it to send their son, Vivek, to America. But when the jewelry finally came out of the box, it was Vivek's hands that lifted it.
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. He looks like a bride, half-naked, partially undressed.
There is another boy in this picture now. His name is Osita. He is as tall as Vivek, but broader at the shoulders, his skin like deep loam. He is Ekene's son, born of Mary, and his eyes are narrow, his mouth full beyond belief. In this picture, Osita's face is carved and dark with alarm. He stands with his arms folded, his jaw set against something he cannot predict.
Vivek smiles at his cousin with gold droplets falling into his eyebrows. "Bhai," he says, with a voice like a bell. "How do I look?"
Osita wished, much later, that he'd told Vivek the truth then, that he was so beautiful he made the air around him dull, made Osita hard with desire. "Take it off," he snapped instead, his throat rough. "Put it back before they catch us."
Vivek ignored him and spun around. There was so much light trapped in his face, it hurt Osita's eyes.
"I would do anything," he said, after Vivek's burial, "give anything to see him like that just one more time, alive and covered with wealth."
The market they burned down used to be just after the second roundabout if you drove down Chief Michael Road, past the abandoned office buildings and the intersection with the vulcanizer, that short man with a scar breaking his right cheek. His name was Ebenezer and he had been working at that junction for as long as anyone could remember. Kavita used to bring their family car to him when the tires needed repair. It was a silver gray Peugeot 504, which Chika had bought after years of working at the glass factory, replacing the old rundown car he'd been using. As a child, Vivek would place a small palm against the hot metal of the car, balancing from foot to foot as he watched Ebenezer work. The scar was thick against Ebenezer's skin, a shiny clotted red pushing out from the brown of his face. When he smiled at Vivek, the scar fought the folding of skin and his mouth rose properly on only one side.
Reading Group Guide
1. “They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.” The novel begins in the aftermath of Vivek Oji’s death, despite his being the titular character. How did knowing that Vivek has already died shape your reading experience? What is suggested by framing the book in this way?
2. In the second chapter, the narrator tells us that this story could be told through a stack of photographs. Near the end of the book, Osita and the girls visit Kavita with a stack of photographs to tell Vivek’s story. How are these stacks of photographs connected? Did you draw any meaning from the use of photographs, as opposed to words or physical mementos?
3. As Vivek grows more uncomfortable with his family at home, he finds solace with the daughters of the Nigerwives. What actions do the girls take to make Vivek feel comfortable and secure? If a biological family is unable to accept a child, can friendships be a sufficient replacement?
4. When the boys are in school, Osita does not comprehend Vivek’s fugue states, and these ultimately lead to the cousins’ falling-out. How did you interpret Vivek’s fugues? Could Osita have dealt with these and his relationship with Vivek better, or is he excused because of his age? Were you surprised when Osita and Vivek become intimate later? How does their relationship change in the intervening years?
5. After Vivek’s death, Kavita is very concerned with finding his Ganesh necklace, and at the end of the book, it is the one item of Vivek’s that Osita keeps. What does the necklace represent about Vivek’s identity and ancestry? What does it mean that he wore it until the end of his life, despite the alterations he made to his appearance?
6. When she was younger, Juju expressed skepticism about the community the Nigerwives had built around their shared identity, but when she is older she falls into easy community with Vivek, Osita, and the girls. What is most important in building a group of friends? How does the Nigerwives’ shared identity as outsiders bring them together despite their individual differences?
7. After Vivek’s death, Osita, Kavita, Chika, and Juju all cope with their grief differently—by running away to party, by pushing for answers, by hiding in bed, or by falling silent. How do these varied responses pull them apart, and how are they ultimately able to push past these tensions?
8. When they were younger, Osita and Elizabeth were an item, and later Osita is with Vivek and Elizabeth is with Juju. Vivek and Juju share a kiss, and after Vivek’s death, Osita and Juju sleep together. What did you make of the many ways the friends are enmeshed? How does the author present a wide spectrum of expressing feeling and affection through physical touch?
9. In the chapter featuring Ebenezer, we learn of a girl with long hair who previously walked through the market and whom Ebenezer sees arguing on the day of the riots. Did you have any sense in that moment that the girl was Vivek, and if so, what made you think that? If not, when did it become clear? In what way did this method of storytelling inform your ideas of how Vivek presented and how acceptable it was to others?
10. “You keep talking as if he belonged to you, just because you were his mother, but he didn’t. He didn’t belong to anybody but himself,” Somto tells Kavita when the group of friends goes to visit her. Do you think Somto is right in saying this about Kavita, and if so, is she right to bring it up then? How does possessiveness play into our relationships with the dead? How about our relationship with our friends?
11. After meeting with the “children,” Kavita decides that Vivek’s gravestone should display the other name he was going by, Nnemdi. Does this prove Kavita’s acceptance of Vivek, even if it comes too late? How did this shape your understanding of Vivek’s identity? Did the connection between Ahunna and Vivek resonate with your beliefs on family, inheritance, and reincarnation?
12. At the end of the book, we learn that Vivek died after fighting with Osita, not at the hands of rioting strangers. Were you surprised by this final reveal? Do you agree with Osita that Vivek would have stayed safe and alive if only he had kept his dresses within the “bubble” of Juju’s room? How does this last bit of information shape your feelings about Osita and your ideas of whom Vivek was most under threat from?