Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala

The Blurb On The Back:

On the surface, Niru leads a charmed life. Raised by two attentive parents in Washington, DC, he’s a top student and an athletics star at his prestigious private high school.  Bound for Harvard, his prospects are bright.  But Niru has a painful secret: he is gay – an abominable sin to his conservative Nigerian parents.  No one knows except his best friend, Meredith – the one person who seems not to judge him.

When his father accidentally finds out, the fallout is brutal and swift.  Coping with troubles of her own, however, Meredith finds that she has little left emotionally to offer him.  As the two friends struggle to reconcile their desires against the expectations and institutions that seek to define them, they find themselves speeding towards a future more violent and senseless than they can imagine.  Neither will escape unscathed.

Speak No Evil is a novel about the power of words and self-identification, about who gets to speak and who has the power to speak for other people.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

18-year-old Niru lives in Washington DC with his ex-pat Nigerian parents (his mother is a doctor and his father the MD of a business) while his older brother OJ is at medical school in New York.  Niru leads a privileged life – he consistently gets top grades at the private school he attends, runs for the school track team and has already been accepted by Harvard for the next academic year – but he also has a secret: he’s gay.

Unable to tell his deeply conservative, Christian parents, he’s been struggling with his sexuality for some time, measuring it against his parents’ expectations for him.  The only person he can confide in is his best friend, Meredith, who has long had a crush on him and whose disappointment in the truth is matched by a desire to help him to explore the DC gay scene.

But when Niru’s father accidentally finds out what Niru has been doing, his rage and hurt is violent and explosive.  With the support of Niru’s mother and the family pastor, he takes Niru back to Nigeria – to pray the gay away from his son …

Uzodinma Iweala’s literary novel has a powerful opening third with Iweala carefully constructing the pressures that Niru feels as a black student in a predominantly white school contrasted with the expectations of his religious, high-achieving parents but the story loses intensity and becomes repetitive when Niru returns to America while the final third, where the focus switches to Meredith left too many unanswered questions to be satisfying.

I really enjoyed the first third of the novel where Iweala really highlights the internal conflict that Niru feels.  The way he’s acutely aware of how stands out as a black student at a largely white school and therefore becomes the one his classmates look at when anything racial hits the fore and the tension this creates is particularly well drawn and I was also struck by how clever Iweala is in contrasting this with the expectations of his parents, who have done well in America but try to stay close to their Nigerian and Christian roots.

I admired the way Iweala further explores this by contrasting the views of Niru’s father (who feels the deprived upbringing he had) with those of his more privileged mother, and yet also shows how their cultural and religious attitudes keep them together.  It was for this reason that I was particularly disappointed by the disappearance of Niru’s mother in the final third of the book without any explanation because it felt like a missed opportunity to explore the impact of the book’s earlier events on the couple and their marriage.

The friendship between Niru and Meredith forms the central hinge of the book and yet while I believed in Meredith’s crush on him (and the rejection she feels when he reveals his secret), I felt that a lot was lost in the last two thirds of the book – particularly in the final third when I really didn’t believe in either of their behaviour.  Part of the issue is that Meredith is somewhat flat in how she’s drawn – there more as a cypher than as a character in her own right and this is particularly true in the final third when her actions exist more to make a political point on behalf of the author (which I can well understand and empathise with, but which didn’t make for a satisfying conclusion).

In a similar way, I had problems believing in Niru’s budding relationship with Damien, a dancer – not because of Niru’s internal torment – but because Damien is again there as a cypher, partly to show how white people are oblivious to the particular issues faced by black men when dealing with their homosexuality and again, this all gets exacerbated in the final third.

Ultimately, I don’t think that this is a bad book – the scenes set in Nigeria in the first third really pack an emotional punch and I think Niru works as a conflicted teenager – but all that set-up doesn’t pay off in the way that Iweala intends and I do think that it was a mistake to switch the action to Meredith, who is insipid and flat in comparison.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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