Review: Speak No Evil
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
Speak No Evil, by Uzodinma Iweala (2018)
"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."
Niru is the child of Nigerian immigrants, living in Washington, D.C. and attending a private school. His experience of being Nigerian-American in a mostly-white school and neighborhood are what you might imagine - uncomfortable at best, dangerous at the worst. Not only does his blackness create issues, but his parents are strict in their religion and in what they deem "acceptable" for their two sons, the older of whom has followed his prescribed path of becoming a doctor.
To top all of this off, Niru is gay. He comes out to his best friend, Meredith (after she tries to seduce him), who then downloads dating apps on his phone. When his father discovers a conversation between Niru and another young man, the proverbial sh*t hits the fan. Niru must now make daily choices about whether he will sacrifice his own happiness to live by his parents' moral code, or "speak his truth," as Meredith puts it.
The most important relationship in this novel is between father and son. Niru learns to straddle both worlds (as any immigrant/immigrant family will do) while never fully landing in either, as his father takes him to Nigeria for "spiritual counseling" and imposes restrictions on his life (eg, takes away his smart phone). He develops a relationship with another young man, but can never fully commit to a life that does not include his father's approval.
I think the writing is strongest when the narrative focuses on this relationship, and on Niru's struggles to come to terms with his own identity - as Nigerian &/or American, as gay, as his father's son. However, for the latter third of the book the point of view switches to Meredith, and we hear of her falling out with Niru, eventual reconciliation, and the reason she hasn't seen him in years... and I just didn't find her side of the story all that compelling. Her woe-is-me attitude as a well-to-do white woman just didn't sit well when paired with Niru's struggles.
I also felt that the story pivoted quickly from being about sexual orientation to being about race, and, while of course both are important to confront (and can easily go hand-in-hand), Iweala kept choosing one or the other at different times, instead of focusing attention on just one, or marrying the two in a meaningful way.
Also? This is just a pet peeve of mine, but Iweala chooses to write with no quotation marks and no breaks between lines of dialogue, and I usually find that literary trope unnecessary and confusing. The difference between the narrator's private thoughts (either Niru's or Meredith's) and spoken dialogue was ambiguous and hard to follow.
In the end, the novel's thoughtfulness in certain moments outweigh the drawbacks, and I'd still recommend it. Iweala is a good writer in need of a better editor (and yes, yes, I did find 2 typos, but that's not the kind of editing I mean). I am also interested to check out his debut novel, Beasts of No Nation, about school-aged guerilla fighters in West Africa, as it has gotten very good reviews (and was made into a movie in 2015, apparently).
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