books, reviews

Dylan Thomas Prize 2021 Shortlisted – The Death of Vivek Oji – Akwaeke Emezi – book review

The winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize – which is for international young writers – will be announced today. So keep an eye on Twitter for the winner.

Launched in 2006, the annual Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize is one of the most prestigious awards for young writers, aimed at encouraging raw creative talent worldwide. It celebrates and nurtures international literary excellence. Worth £20,000, it is one of the UK’s most prestigious literary prizes as well as one of the world’s largest literary prizes for young writers. Awarded for the best published literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under, the Prize celebrates the international world of fiction in all its forms including poetry, novels, short stories and drama. The prize is named after the Swansea-born writer, Dylan Thomas, and celebrates his 39 years of creativity and productivity. One of the most influential, internationally-renowned writers of the mid-twentieth century, the prize invokes his memory to support the writers of today and nurture the talents of tomorrow.

I was kindly sent a copy of one of the shortlisted titles – The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi to read and review and my thoughts are below. It arrived a bit later than planned due to a delivery mix up but better late than never!

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.

My thoughts: this is beautiful and terribly, terribly sad, for several reasons.

From the title you know that someone dies, but the book is about how that someone, Vivek Oji, lived. It’s about his childhood, told through his cousin’s words and about his secrets, told through his friends. Vivek is only young when he dies, and his grief-stricken mother searches for answers – how did he die, who brought his body to the door of their house and left it there?

Slowly, as Vivek’s story unfolds, we learn about him, about who he really was, about the secrets he kept from all but his closest friends.

Beautifully written, moving and tragic, this is the story of one life, but it could be the story of so many, keeping parts of themselves hidden and secret, keeping love and truth buried, even as it causes them pain.

**some of the above text is taken from a press release about the shortlist but the review is entirely my own opinions and words**