There is so much emotion and so many important themes packed into SPEAK NO EVIL, it's impossible to properly cover everything Uzodinma Iweala touches upon. Any one of the themes could be a full novel, so when we leap into this book, it's a bit like leaping into a boiling pot of water. That felt uncomfortable and even false at the beginning. By the end it all fit into place.
First and foremost, it's a book about a young gay black man. Niru is the privileged son of Nigerian immigrants living in Washington DC. He is as American as apple pie, but his father still calls Nigeria "home" and like many immigrant parents, he worries that his son is becoming too American. This American influence is a conflict that runs through most immigrant families and yet it's always individual. It's treated both seriously and with humor. It's easy to imagine any of the words coming from many people living in similar situations.
Then there is the story of a young black man who lives in Washington, drives a nice car, attends a private school. His best friend Meredith is white, and it is within the context of a teenaged sexual encounter that he reveals he is gay. Meredith does what any young liberal BFF would do and signs him up for all the gay dating apps. She's preternaturally optimistic and blind to the conflict that might come from jumping with two feet and no thought.
Niru wants to stay rooted in his family and community, but he is who he is. Steeped in Christianity, headed to Harvard, Niru is torn between love for his family, long-held beliefs, comfort with the way things are and his sexuality. They don't seem to be allowed to fit together. This is made clear when his father drags him to Nigeria where Reverend Olumide has found people who can "deliver" him and "clear this abomination" from Niru.
He is angry with Meredith, blames her meddling, rails against his parents, then wonders if spiritual counseling might not be helpful? He wants to meet men, fantasizes about being away at school where he can meet them, then wonders if he is truly abominable. Maybe he has spent too much time in the US soaking up awful things. Maybe a week with Nigerian prayer warriors will cure him? Or not. Niru is clearly torn and conflicted. His friendship with Meredith is strained to the point of breaking.
Then something happens and the tone of the book changes in every way. The story of a young gay man's struggle for individuality and belonging morphs into something else entirely. The narrator changes and everything is thrown into a different light. The issues remain but are now on a back burner. The angles have all changed. It is abrupt but didn't knock me away from the book. Instead it drew me in.
In many ways this is an extraordinary book. Every character is in serious conflict. There are no easy answers ripped from slogans here. No fake happy endings or flat personas. Both Meredith and especially his parents, who could have become caricatures in less deft hands, are fully-formed. The change of narrator and of plot to a large extent could have been a train wreck, but it worked for me. I cared about the characters, and if I didn't like them at first, I felt empathy for all by the end. It is a weighty book, with loads of heavy issues, treated with varying heft at various times. Nothing is solved, but it's all laid bare, asking the reader to understand.
Trigger warning: Rape
This is the third time I've read this book.
I know I read it first when I was a teenager. I read it again when I was in my late 20s. Even though I knew the story was important, I did not care for it either time. I did not like the format, it did not flow with me. I felt bad that I didn't like the book, and I don't really know why. I feel mood and life experiences can really play a part in how you feel about something.
I decided I wanted to give it a second chance, well a third chance. I am glad that I did. I don't know why I couldn't like the book the first two times, but I could really relate to the main character this time around. Her anxiety, how she felt about having to be silent, like nobody would care or understand. I know how that feels, though for different reasons. I feel like I've grown as a person and I am better able to put myself in her shoes.
I also want to point out that the format did not bother me at all this time. In fact, I really liked the writing style and the way it was made to look like a diary. I'm not sure why I didn't like it before, because I've loved diary books for ages.
Original rating was 2 stars:
You know, I just did not like this book. I think it was the format of the book that put me off. However, I think this story is important and needs to be told/read.
(I really wish I wrote proper reviews back in the days. I still have trouble with them, but at least I think I'm trying harder.)
Emily Stewart is the girl who claims to stand between the living and the dead. During the quiet summer of 1925, she and her brother, Michael, are thirteen-year-old twins-privileged, precocious, wandering aimlessly around their family's estate. One day, Emily discovers that she can secretly crack her ankle in such a way that a sound appears to burst through the stillness of midair. Emily and Michael gather the neighborhood children to fool them with these "spirit knockings." Soon, however, this game of contacting the dead creeps into a world of adults still reeling from World War I. When the twins find themselves dabbling in the uncertain territory of human grief and family secrets, everything spins wildly out of control.
Loosely inspired by the true story of the Fox sisters (whose actions kickstarted the 19th century Spiritualism Movement), author Paul Elwork mixes things up a bit by telling a similar story but from a brother / sister perspective. At the novel's start, in the year 1925, Emily and Michael are thirteen year old twins living on the family's East Coast estate of Ravenwood. After losing their father in World War 1, the children are often left to find their own ways to keep themselves occupied throughout a day.
"Your father," her mother said, "was always interested in the things beneath things."
Emily nodded at this. "Isn't everyone?"
"Not as much as you might think."
Michael is described as a bookish loner who "before his 10th birthday had discovered that he could not tolerate most people well," while sister Emily is creative, curious, and inventive. Emily becomes captivated by the family story of Great Aunt Regina, who died in the late 1800s (only 16 years old) when she had a fall near the estate's riverbank. She's now said to haunt Ravenwood. Around this time of Emily's budding interest in the paranormal, she also discovers a trick where she can make her ankle crack on command. This becomes the basis for Emily and Michael's "spirit knocking" gatherings, initially held just the neighborhood kids but quickly catches on with the local adults as well.
Michael becomes the team's hype man, crafting ghost stories inspired by all his reading. When they get into doing readings for the towsfolk, the twins claim to use the ghost of Great Aunt Regina as their spirit guide. Once adults mourning loved ones lost to WW1 start seeking out the twins for solace, what starts as a game soon turns to something quite a bit more serious.
Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who became quite a prominent follower of Spiritualism, gets a brief mention in this book. In regards to the paranormal theme, there is nothing particularly spooky or scary here, which is largely why my reading experience was ultimately somewhat disappointing. While there is a definite poetic flair to Elwork's writing style, the overall tone just had steady note of sadness throughout the whole plot.