You made a fool of death with your beauty
By Akwaeke Emezi
Atria Books, United States
Romance novels are often dismissed as fluffy, inconsequential, and uninspired by discerning readers of quality literary fiction. Skepticism surrounding the genre, though rooted in intellectual snobbery, can be attributed to the fact that most romantic fiction tends to follow a predictable course.
Filled with stereotypical displays of star-crossed lovers, forbidden liaisons, and happy endings, these novels risk coming across as stereotypical and unrealistic. It’s rare to find love stories that strip away the artifice and reveal some of the dark and harrowing truths of a passionate romance. Romantic novels produced in the West suffer from additional flaws because they are too white-centric and neglect racial and ethnic diversity.
Akwaeke Emezi’s You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty is certainly no antidote to the problems plaguing the genre as a whole because, through his first attempt at writing romantic fiction, the Nigerian novelist seems to have recycled the tropes associated with the genre. Even so, it would be unfair to lump the book into the same category as a leisurely “beach read” that’s tailor-made to be forgotten.
The key ingredient that elevates Emezi’s novel from the glut of all-too-familiar love stories is its focus on the delicate issue of coping with grief. For context, Erich Segal’s Oliver story followed a similar pattern, albeit within the confines of a more testosterone-fueled narrative.
An unusual romance novel by a Nigerian author offers a poignant study of love and the acceptance of heartbreak
The Emezi canvas benefits from sensitivity and greater attention to detail. Similar to the author’s previous novel The Death of Vivek Oji, the loss of a spouse emerges as the critical axis of You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty. The only difference is that, in The Death of Vivek Oji, the disappearance of the protagonist appears as an opportunity for him to escape the injustices of the world. As a result, Vivek’s death is seen as another manifestation of the invisibility he had been forced into in life.
For Feyi Adekola, 29, the unfortunate protagonist of Emezi’s new book, death takes the form of a specter from which she struggles to extricate herself. Unlike Vivek, Feyi didn’t get her much-needed release, but lost her husband and high school girlfriend, Jonah. Five years after her death, the persistence of memory continues to hold her in her arms and prevents her from forgetting an idyllic life that was torn from her when Jonas died in a car accident. Feyi now inhabits a self-created shell in New York City, where art acts as a source of consolation and celibacy becomes her armor against further grief.
You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty begins at the crucial moment when Feyi breaks her vow of celibacy and develops a strictly physical relationship with a man named Milan. Emezi’s decision to choose this as the story’s starting point reveals that they understand that the grieving process often forces people to cross boundaries and reinvent themselves. Although Feyi’s encounter with Milan is driven by sheer lust rather than genuine emotion, it reflects a sincere attempt to alter the course of her life and embark on a journey of healing.
However, Feyi is only taking tentative steps to recover from the onslaught of the past and therefore treats the relationship as an emotional pit stop that will lead her to another chance at happiness. In a quest to relearn the art of living, she makes another pit stop that catapults her into unexpected career possibilities and forbidden romance.
As they returned home, Feyi let herself imagine the journey with Nasir, an easy and perfect version. The two of them swimming in the ocean, salt in their hair, sand on their skin as they lie in the sun. Mangoes crumbling in their hands, the wet color of a sunset, the road up the mountain covered in green. – Book’s extract
Any effort to delineate the plot into spoiler-filled detail should be fiercely resisted as it will only rob readers of the opportunity to savor the essence of the story. Suffice it to say, Feyi’s journey to rediscovery is complex and chaotic, and draws considerable disapproval from those around her.
It’s usually hard for readers to accept a female protagonist who makes unpopular choices. Emezi’s dialogue-driven approach to storytelling gives the narrative a degree of objectivity; it is a useful technique that prevents the narrative voice from chastising
Feyi for his choices. The author assures that Feyi, and the man with whom she ultimately finds herself in a forbidden union, are rarely portrayed as villains.
Unfortunately, the problem arises when some characters arbitrarily change from “good” to “evil” in the blink of an eye. This is a common trope that novel writers tend to use to conveniently propel the narrative forward or exploit its dramatic possibilities. The presence of these cardboard cutouts in place of diehard characters in an emotionally intense novel like You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty is problematic.
Emezi’s decision to use Feyi as the pivot of the novel jeopardizes the development of other characters. Readers who were intrigued by the author’s decision to write The Death of Vivek Oji from the perspective of multiple characters may find it difficult to accept a rather one-dimensional approach to storytelling. Even in the third-person narrative perspective, Emezi only seems to address Feyi’s concerns and motivations rather than those of the other characters.
In light of the fact that Emezi is writing a romance novel, it’s not an entirely atypical choice to make. Some characters, however, are much more appealing than the main protagonist and deserve their own attention, such as Feyi’s friend Joy, who is treated as a worthy sidekick despite being an essential part of sexual and emotional awakening. from Fei.
The prose enjoys a refreshing simplicity that many writers can only aspire to and rarely achieve. Emezi is to be commended for his elegant and evocative style, devoid of complicated and endless passages that are difficult to navigate. A clean, engaging style allows Feyi’s tumultuous emotional journey to become all the more approachable and human.
At a time when romance novels in the United States are heavily dominated by white characters who cannot see past their own narrow interests, Emezi examined the romantic escapades of a black woman. This cannot be overlooked, as the Nigerian author has contributed to the body of romantic fiction that focuses on women from racially diverse communities. The new novel also falls into the category of queer literature, which serves to add a new dimension to Feyi’s complex personality.
You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty offers a poignant study of love and its many facets. The author vehemently challenges a static interpretation of love and reminds readers that new chances of finding happiness are not a distant possibility.
The reviewer is the author of Typically Tanya and co-editor of The Stained-Glass Window: Stories of the Pandemic from Pakistan. He tweets @TahaKehar
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 6, 2022