You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi; Atria Books; 288 pages; $27
Akwaeke Emezi’s body of work defies stringent classification. The award-winning author published six books in five genres in four years: Freshwater and The Death of Vivek Oji (fiction), Pet (young adult), Dear Senthuran (nonfiction), and Content Warning: Everything (poetry). In their romance novel debut You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty, Emezi resists the exploration of traditional grief stages. While still full of examples of denial, plenty of anger, bargaining, all-encompassing depression, and acceptance, it is the liminal spaces between Emezi’s razor-sharp wit and scorching honesty that cut deepest. The novel’s exposé on opposition, on death and aliveness, deprivation and hunger, fragility and strength mark a reclaiming of both the genre and the complexities of our intimate relationships with others, and most importantly, ourselves.
Emezi’s careful uncovering of opposition breathes new life into the romance genre. These juxtapositions might have seemed forced if not for Emezi’s dedication to complex and multi-dimensional characters. The layered development of Feyi Adekola, the novel’s young, queer, Nigerian protagonist, highlights both a fragility and strength that confronts romance tropes. As Feyi begins to navigate life five years after the car accident that killed her husband, she simultaneously embarks on a reclamation of her life. Through a honed analysis often unfound in debut novels, Emezi allows Feyi to take her time: to break, to make mistakes, and to recover from the searing and specific pain caused by lossed love. This generous allowance of time, to grieve, to be consumed, to heal, is gut-wrenching and beautiful to behold as Feyi learns to embrace “madness and mess. Something that [takes] up space. Something that felt furiously alive, because survival could be so very, very angry . . . [h]eart-rendering, cloth-rendering grief, but it couldn’t return to that place .. . . you might never get out of. You weren’t alive in that place.” Emezi delicately presents opposition without blame: Feyi’s fight for survival teeters on her willingness to live with loss and reclaim her feelings and desires without shame. Feyi’s complexity, and Emezi’s patience as writer, help redefine the power necessary to succeed in the genre and in our own lives after loss.
Emezi further honors liminality through vivid portrayals of place. After the death of her husband, Feyi moves to New York, “because if she was a monster, then so was the city, glorious and bright and everlasting, eating up time and hearts and lives as if they were nothing. She wanted to be consumed by the relentless volume of a place so much louder than she was, a place where her past and her pain could drown in the noise.” After years of deprivation, and with the encouragement of her best friend Joy, Feyi utilizes the consuming city to mourn and reignite her dormant sexuality. After a steamy encounter at a rooftop bar, Feyi falls for the handsome Nasir Blake, a kind and compassionate friend who supports her work as an artist. As New York allows Feyi the cover to drown out pain, Nasir’s offer to visit the lush, tropical islands of his hometown act as invitation (and space) to grow. Once in the Caribbean, Feyi “looked out into the courtyard and thought of the land, of the river he’d pointed out on their drive up, the waterfall it ended in. Her body felt not just alive but strong and awake. It wanted sky and water, soil and air . . . She was hers; she was alive; there was so much to do." Emezi’s descriptive depictions remind us of the healing capabilities of place if we allow opposition – death and aliveness, deprivation and hunger – to linger.
The ebbs and flows of the novel can be disorienting at times, perhaps an homage to the non-linear explorations of grief. From the first sentence, Emezi brings reality into sharp focus, but the lull that follows seems unchartered, as if we are waiting for the plot direction to come into view and the central conflict to emerge. These come into focus six chapters in, but the spark of a dangerous new love interest might best have ignited earlier. In stark contrast, the ending feels rushed, and a bit too tidy, as if a reawakening of identity can be formulated after just two weeks in a lush tropical paradise. However, the pacing inconsistencies do not retract from the power in the ending, as Emezi remarkedly embraces Feyi’s “responsibility for her own feelings . . . it would be messy, but so was surviving.”
Emezi credits frontwoman Florence Welch from Florence + the Machine and her song “Hunger” for the novel’s title; the power of her music also helped Emezi heal during the tough year You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty was written. In the near future, Amazon Studios and Michael B. Jordon’s Outlier Society will bring the novel to the big screen with Emezi signed on as executive producer. The National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree, New York Times bestseller, and National Book Award finalist’s reach, cross-cultural appeal, and achievement seem best summarized in reclamation: the right to create projects that take up space and fuel the hunger within. Early on in the novel, Emezi writes, “Everyone had a right to keep some hurts buried and private . . . Feyi had spent a very long time building salves for herself, and they were finally working.” After the past few years of living through loss fueled by death and disease in a global pandemic and human rights’ violations and war, Emezi’s novel acts as a necessary catharsis, or a possible salve for our broken hearts and devastated world – a liminal space where art, music, work, passion, love, desire and hunger can help us reimagine and reclaim our rightful identities.