The Bumpy Road to Healing

Life, a journey brimming with adventures, misadventures, and missteps, is an enigma that never runs out of curve balls to hurl at us. Each of these detours and curve balls gives us different experiences. There are some that we relish during our lifetime. There are some that teach us valuable lessons and pearls of wisdom that we will take wherever in life we go. However, there are also some that leave us physically, emotionally, and even mentally exhausted. Some leave us mortally wounded and the wounds are too deep that not even the passage of time can help heal or quell them. Some spend lifetimes licking their wound. Some go astray trying to make sense of their trauma while some, unfortunately. end up being consumed by it. The truth is that none of us will escape life unscathed. We all have wounds we obscure, scars we hide from the rest of the world.

Loss, trauma, and mustering the strength to overcome them floated to the fore in Nigerian writer Akwaeke Emezi’s latest novel, You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty. Their third venture into adult fiction, the novel charted the story of Feyi Adekola, with the novel commencing in a steamy and explicit sex scene. During one Bushwick rooftop party, Feyi let herself loose and is consumed by the sexual tension that permeated the air after a chance encounter with a handsome stranger; his name was Milan. It was, on the surface, for the shock factor as the scene immediately commands the attention of the reader. It can also elicit the opposite effect. Nevertheless, Emezi trailblazes the course as they deftly painted the landscape of Feyi’s story.

In true in medias res fashion, we started learning more about Feyi, with emphasis on the events that led to that steamy night, as the story moved forward. She was twenty-nine years old Nigerian American. Feyi was a visual artist by profession and was currently living with her best friend, Joy. Everything seems to be in perfect order; nothing seems to be out of place. Except they aren’t. Feyi is a widow who is still trying to overcome the trauma of her past which Emezi provided the readers glimpses of through vignettes. One thing was clear: Feyi was previously married to Jonah, her high school sweetheart. However, five years ago before that fateful encounter at the rooftop party, Feyi lost her in an accident. The loss of her husband left Feyi uninspired, unable to go on with her life.

“I was so mad after he died because I knew he would think it was just going to become part of my story, a disaster I’d recover from, and it made me so angry because I didn’t want to recover. I didn’t want to keep having a story. I wanted our stories to run together and stop at the same time, so neither of us would have to be alone.”

~ Akwaeke Emezi, You Made A Fool of Death With Your Beauty

It was in this state slightly detached from reality that Feyi spent half a decade of her adulthood. She was virtually unable to function as a normal human being. She was living inside in her own bubble, isolated from the rest of the world. She avoided all forms of intimacy and physical contact, i.e. sex, and deep attachments. All romantic overtures were immediately cut off. She also relied on insurance money to keep her afloat. Feyi was living an existence not worth living. But with the relentless coaxing of her friend, Feyi finally decided to come out of her shell and give living another chance. And with renewed tenacity and vigor, she was determined to make things work. Like a phoenix rising from its five centuries of slumber, Feyi emerged from the ashes, resolute in her desire to be a stronger version of herself, her battle scars her armor against the rest of the world.

The road to recovery, as Feyi would soon realize, was not as straightforward as it seemed. While her road to recovery started off on one of Feyi’s most liberating moments, the chain of events that ensued would inevitably lead to her life spinning beyond her control. She found herself caught in dire straits but somehow, she manages to squeeze out of them. Committing herself to one person, however, remained an obstacle she had to hurdle. Healing takes time, especially when the wounds are too deep, just like in the case of Feyi. There were, however, individuals who recognized this. They are cognizant of the wounds we try to obscure from the rest of the world. They are willing to wait for us to fully heal and recover, letting us bide our time. For Feyi, this came initially in the form of Nasir, Milan’s friend; Feyi and Milan kept in touch and stayed in a noncommital relationship following their rooftop encounter.

Nasir, on the surface, was the perfect vision of a man, the quintessence of virility and maleness. He checks all the boxes. He was good-looking and can charm even a chair. He descended from an affluent family. His father was a popular celebrity chef but he was also successful in his own right. He fell in love with her the moment he first set his sights on her. More importantly, he recognized that Feyi was going through something but he did not want to pressure her. He has repeatedly expressed his willingness to wait for her as she takes her time healing. But in Emezi’s first venture into romance – they have already published works from different genres spanning young adult fiction, literary fiction, and even coming-of-age stories – nothing is what it seems.

Tragic loss and grief, two profound and universal subjects, permeated the story. Trauma and loss floated to the fore. Unexpected losses, in particular, can be gut-wrenching. No amount of comforting words can gloss over how these losses and grief can paralyze us. In the case of Feyi, it took her five years. Trauma has indeed dictated her life. She let her loss, trauma, and grief seize her. Even the focal point of her art was her trauma; she painted self-portraits with blood as her primary medium, not her blood to be exact but that of a pig. For years, and in the succeeding pages of the story, trauma was prevalent in Feyi’s life. These subjects ultimately extended into the realms of existentialism as Feyi also constantly found herself contemplating the meaning of life and what it means to be alive.

“The space was sprawling, marked by a platform king bed in the center, canopied with gossamer curtains. The entire outside wall was glass, looking out into a landscaped garden exploding with flowers, birds, and butterflies. A small stream sang through the garden, rippling over stones. Feyi walked over to the bed and ran her hands over the flax linen sheets, her fingernails golden against the olive green.”

~ Akwaeke Emezi, You Made A Fool of Death With Your Beauty

As the story moved forward, the readers witness how Feyi’s journey to healing unfolded. At times, the journey to healing inevitably leads us to orbit around individuals who are also on their own journey to recovery. They could also come in the form of individuals who managed to heal from their own trauma. Our shared experiences, our shared wounds, and our trauma somehow unite us. They allow us to empathize with each other. In Emezi’s universe, there is no better person to connect with or a better person who understands than another individual who is recovering or has recovered from the same kind of trauma and loss. It was through the intersection of these subjects that the novel’s biggest conflict arose.

The novel’s first half was clearheaded in its direction. However, things started going askew when the novel’s central conflict started to unfold. The transformation that took place in one character barely made sense. He felt more human in the first half but when the conflict percolated and reached a boiling point, he transformed into a character who was barely recognizable. While there were insinuations, his vilification nevertheless defied logic, unless it was examined through a different lens or from a different vantage point. His outright vilification pointed in one direction: placing the proverbial highlight on two scarred individuals who are also star-crossed lovers. This unexpected turn undermined the development of the novel’s elements of romance. This, in turn, made its impact ephemeral. What was once a promising story slowly developed into a typical world-against-us trope. Add to the mix insta-love and the huge age gap and you concoct a delicacy that leaves a bitter aftertaste.

By painting some of the characters as villains, Emeze was, in effect, exonerating the actions of the main characters. The novel’s central conflict also underlined what was essentially wrong with it: the romanticization of trauma. Feyi’s story was supposed to draw strength from it but the way trauma was used as a license to inflict pain reverses this. The repetitive nature of the subject brought to the fore what was lacking. We know that Jonah’s abrupt death adversely affected Feyi. However, Emezi provided very sketchy details of him that he came across as a figment of imagination. We also never get to learn about Jonah and Feyi’s relationship. Moreover, the idea that the only one who can understand what Feyi was going through was another person who has gone through the same experience as she came off as shallow at best. And to build a relationship around this shared trauma came across as shallow.

There was also an element that was palpably lacking in the story: the strength that was inherent in Emezi’s prose. You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty was missing the storytelling and writing that made Freshwater an instant sensation. The latter was mature in its execution, affectionate in some parts. The writing in the former, meanwhile, was pedestrian at best. This also resulted in dialogues that were, at times, stilted, cringy even. Nonetheless, it was commendable how Emezi keeps on expanding their writing horizon. Their desire to always keep on probing the other facets of their own prose was nothing short of admirable. Venturing into the unknown can be quite disorienting but they are unfazed.

“Everyone had always told Feyi growing up that she should stay away from bright colors, that they would be too garish against her dark skin, so it was a delight to stop listening to all of them, to lean into pastels and neons and metallics, rainbows cascading down her back.”

~ Akwaeke Emezi, You Made A Fool of Death With Your Beauty

In their third adult novel, Emezi was again challenging themselves and what they are capable of. For sure, they are capable of so much more, if their first two novels are any indicator. Indeed, You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty held promise. It had its bright spots and even started off on the right note, rather, a steamy note. Through the story of Feyi, Emezi explored timeless subjects such as trauma, loss, and grief. Emezi underlined how healing takes time. Progress can be slow but it is still progress. Elsewhere, the novel explored family dynamics, friendship, mental health, and sexuality. With their calculated storytelling, everything unfolded according to plan until it did not. Trauma was romanticized. Some of the characters digressed rather than developed. There were choices and ideas that were questionable and even lacked logic. Some were whimsical at best. As a romance story, it was lacking. Despite the promises it held, You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty‘s impact was ephemeral at best.

Rating

40%

Characters (30%) – 12%
Plot (30%) – 
10%
Writing (25%) – 
13%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
5%

I can still recall how Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater made me feel. Their – they are nonbinary, hence, the pronoun – debut novel gave me one of my most memorable reading experiences in recent memory. I was in awe of how they deftly steered the narrative. They have seduced me with the beauty of their prose, making me want to explore and lose myself in its every contour. That opportunity came in 2020 when they released The Death of Vivek Oji. However, unlike their debut novel, I was a little underwhelmed by the book. This did not preclude me from looking forward to reading more of their work. Two years later, I got another chance to immerse myself in their prose. Earlier in 2022, while browsing through most anticipated 2022 releases lists, their latest novel, You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty popped out. I didn’t even know of their latest release until that day. Needless to say, I was on the lookout for the book although I did not include the book on my own Most Anticipated Releases list for I only include writers whose works I have not read previously. Thankfully, I was able to obtain a copy of the book toward the end of the year. I must say I expected more from the book. It had a promising premise and set of characters but their full potential was never realized. Some characters had to be painted either black or white to reinforce the romantic aspects of the novel which did not fully convince me. The writing, as well, was not on par with what I expected from Emezi. Nevertheless, their resolve to keep on pushing the boundaries of their storytelling is nothing short of admirable.

Book Specs

Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Publisher: Atria
Publishing Date: 2022
Number of Pages: 278
Genre: Romance, Literary

Synopsis

Feyi Adekola wants to learn how to be alive again. It’s been five years since the accident that killed the love of her life and she’s almost a new person now – an artist with her own studio, sharing a brownstone apartment with her ride-or-die best friend, Joy, who insists it’s time for Feyi to ease back into the dating scene. Feyi isn’t ready for anything serious, but a steamy encounter at a rooftop party cascades into a whirlwind summer she could never have imagined: a luxury trip to a tropical island, decadent meals in the glamorous home of a celebrity chef, and a major curator who wants to launch her art career.

She’s even started dating the perfect guy, but their new relationship might be sabotaged before it has a chance by the overwhelming desire Feyi feels every time she locks eyes with the one person who is most definitely off-limits – his father. This new life she asked for just got a lot more complicated, and Feyi must begin her search for real answers. Who is she ready to become? Can she release her past and honor her grief while still embracing her future? And of course there’s the biggest question of them all: How far is she willing to go for a second chance at love?

Akwaeke Emezi’s vivid and passionate writing takes us deep into a world of possibility and healing, and the constant bravery of choosing love against all odds.

About the Author

To learn more about Akwaeke Emezi, click here.