I pretty much wanted to read this the first time I saw the description. Sometimes, for reasons I really can’t say, a combination of title and cover and description pull me in so hard. And this was one of those. Anyways, soon after I decided that I’d be definitely reading this, I saw that @words.between.worlds had chosen it as their May book and I pretty much took that as a sign that I needed to read it right now. I’m so glad I did.
“Desire is desire… Desire had no right. No wrong. It simply was…”
Niru lives in Washington D.C. with his parents, Nigerian immigrants, in a nice house in a well-to-do neighborhood, attending a prestigious private school, preparing to graduate and attend Harvard (pre-med) in the fall. Things are pretty much perfect…outwardly. However, Niru has a major secret: he’s gay. And when he finally admits it out loud, things start to fall apart for him. His relationship with his best friend, Meredith, starts to crumble, and when his conservative, religious parents find out, the consequences are devastating and far-reaching. And while this would be difficult enough for anyone, neither Niru nor Meredith, nor their families, realize that a greater tragedy, even more senseless, is yet to come. And it will permanently affect them all.
This book. What a gentle telling of a gutting story. I seriously am having trouble processing the depths of this piece. Although short, it packs one of the largest punches of any book I’ve read recently (on par with Girls Burn Brighter). Let me start with the writing, because that will be a little easier to talk about. The book is told from two perspectives, a sort of before and after, split between Niru and Meredith. Both have the same feel in the writing, a sort of stream of consciousness, not bound by normal structural and grammatical rule constraints. It’s sometimes a little harder to follow than “normal” writing, but is absolutely worth it because it’s the perfect style for this sort of story, told from the minds of two adolescents/young adults. The format allows for one of the most authentic voices I’ve read in a long time, showcasing the vulnerability inside both, exemplifying that past the heartbreak of events themselves, the inner effects on each youth are where the sorrow of the story really shines through.
As for the story itself – it’s really something special. These two perspectives, within this particular plot, are something completely unique. I mean, the general themes are some that I have seen before, of course, but the combination of them in this way is new and refreshing (in a wrenching, shattering sort of way). It’s the worst and saddest case scenarios happening in circles and within families where that sort of thing “only happens to other people.” I was fascinated, in the “can’t look away from a trainwreck” way, by how these two families handled their separate parts in the books events…and the ways that impacted and changed their children. In addition to these parental ambitions/children’s attempts to meet expectations themes, this book also touched on religious and cultural identity/ideology, sexuality, racism and police violence, general image and “keep up with the Jones’,” the feeling of invincibility in adolescents (until they lose it), mental and emotional trauma, what is worth fighting for, what should stay hidden (image-wise), inter-generational changes, self-acceptance and searching for who you are, loss, guilt (so much guilt), and love (especially perceived conditional and unrequited). It’s literally a grab-bag of intense and heavy themes, all flawlessly woven together into one of the shortest books I’ve read this year (maybe ever). I don’t want to go into too much detail on these points, because I want to avoid spoilers for you, but seriously, it must have taken so much time and effort to craft this complex story into such a fine telling.
Honestly, this whole thing broke both my head and my heart. I had to take breaks in reading a couple times, and I can’t even tell you how hard it was to try and get words down on paper for this review. But at the same time, I am so glad that I picked this up. This is a novel for the reality of the modern day: staggering and visceral in its’ insights, gorgeously and poetically told, and powerful in its messages.
Let me share some quotes from this work of art:
“I don’t fight battles I can’t win…It makes life less difficult.”
“Focus. On what – straight ahead to his face? But those lips. Say a prayer to slow this fast-beating heart? But his strong, delicate hands. To wet this dry mouth? But the soft slope of his nose. For deliverance?”
“There is no one to speak to about my headache and my stomachache when I leave by bedroom and encounter this beautiful prison that my parents have built, when I see pictures of me on the walls and side tables that bear no resemblance to the me they cannot see.”
“I feel like a start caught in the gravitational pull of a black hole, unraveling, spinning under the control of some unseen force, torn into streams of fire forever spiraling, never to be put together again.”
“On the bad days, there is no color. I know there are colors. I can see the colors, but the world looks gray. The sounds are muffled by a crackling web of static that sits behind my eyes and buzzes in my ears.”
“…our father lives somewhere between the self-satisfaction that his success has made us soft and disgust that we are unacquainted with the brutal intensity of a world that he has effectively tamed for us.”
“It hurts even if nature always wins in the end. It hurts because loving someone is very often against your will at first and there is no amount of will that can change the situation before me. I have tried.”