YOU MADE A FOOL OF DEATH WITH YOUR BEAUTY, by Akwaeke Emezi
Every now and then, in my more low-spirited moments, I find myself suspecting that I know of no country more ill equipped for grieving, no society less capable of making space for the depths and complexities of life-changing sorrow, than the United States. Whether or not everyone would agree with that suspicion, the United States, along with the rest of the world, is living through a time of more loss than usual, and for some grievers, myself included, mourning hasn’t occurred in tidily named stages, nor has it meaningfully eased with time. It is entirely possible to continue grieving for what is gone for years, decades, a lifetime.
How, then, to live? This is a question at the heart of Akwaeke Emezi’s rousing, celebratory new novel, “You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty.”
Emezi, for anyone new to their work, is a writer of startling versatility and speed. In 2018, they published their debut novel, the powerful “Freshwater”; since then, in a scant four years, they’ve written books in multiple genres — fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young adult — and now, with “You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty,” romance.
The title comes from a Florence + the Machine song, “Hunger”: “How could anything bad ever happen to you? / You make a fool of death with your beauty.” Quite a bit of bad has happened to the novel’s central character, Feyi Adekola: A 29-year-old artist, she lost her husband, her high school sweetheart, in a car crash that left her with “intermittent islands of hypertrophied tissue falling like stars down her left leg, a raised and jagged line across her palm, an everlasting bruise on her forearm from when they dragged her out of the car, scraping her across the road.” Since then, Feyi has hardly been living — avoiding sex and romance, getting by on insurance money — and the book begins as she attends a Bushwick rooftop party, five years into widowhood, with the hope of ending her celibacy.
Feyi succeeds in this mission with a stranger from the rooftop. She has sex with him for a few months, then stops, eventually ending up in an ambiguous relationship with Nasir, his friend. Nasir is enthralled with Feyi; Feyi wants to take things slowly. Backing off on proposing romance, Nasir instead puts Feyi in touch with a prominent curator who wants to feature her work in an upcoming group show.
Nasir takes Feyi to his family’s opulent house on a Caribbean island, where she stays as his guest while installing her exhibit. She also meets Nasir’s father, Alim, an eminent chef with an enduring sorrow of his own. The two recognize each other as fellow grievers — then, against both their wills, as potentially much more. Neither wants to hurt Nasir, and yet. “I always feel alone,” Feyi tells a friend, and she knows Alim does, too. With him, she’s found someone to be “alone next to.” And so, Feyi and Alim reach for joy: “Because Feyi was Feyi and she was alive, there was no way she could say no.”
“You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty” is an unabashed ode to living with, and despite, pain and mortality. I love this book’s understanding of how tightly grief can tangle itself with elation, and how loss might elicit possession. It is also riotously, delightfully queer, featuring, hallelujah, so many characters who weren’t straight that I had trouble remembering if anyone even was heterosexual.
Emezi’s latest novel is a departure in genre and prose style from their previous work, and it could appeal especially to people who, living through an isolating pandemic that has accelerated loss, hunger for more joie de vivre. “The ghosts were always sudden,” Feyi thinks, and in this book, love is, too. Joy is, too.
R.O. Kwon is the author of “The Incendiaries” and co-editor of “Kink.”
YOU MADE A FOOL OF DEATH WITH YOUR BEAUTY, by Akwaeke Emezi | 278 pp. | Atria Books | $27
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