Originally published in the Sunday, February 12th, 2022 edition of the Stabroek News
Akwaeke Emezi used to intimidate me. They have bounced from genre to genre, storyform to storyform, leaving ground-breaking and provocative work in their wake since their debut novel Freshwater shook the literary world in 2018. Since then, they have published six more critically acclaimed books, three of which were published in 2022 alone. They have been busy, and astonishingly successful. It was hard not to feel ill-equipped to even try to ride their literary tempest. For years, I shied away.
But this year, I resolved to banish my timidity and tackle Emezi’s work from behind, sinking claws and teeth into their most recent publication and romance debut You made a Fool of Death with your Beauty, which was published in May 2022.
I wasn’t expecting a lofty literary read with this novel, Emezi themself having made it clear that You made a Fool of Death with your Beauty is a romance book that’s unlike the literary and speculative books they published before. Nevertheless, the story I found within these pages was deliciously complex. I honestly feel like the excellence of this novel was undersold. It was a messy, titillating, anxiety-inducing romantic spiral that invested me in the story from line one. And there was a maturity about it as well, the way it blossomed gracefully into an exploration of love, loss, and the vulnerability needed to heal and love again. I enjoyed reading it, and I think that You made a Fool of Death with your Beauty is an excellent Valentine’s Day selection.
“For a treacherous second, she wanted to tell Jonah about it, to hear his smooth laugh again. He’d ask her if she’d had fun. Feyi pressed her elbows against the brownstone steps to drive the thought away, hard enough to hurt. It was the start of summer, she was alive, and she was so fucking close to becoming what she wanted—someone who had moved on, someone who had a life that wasn’t dressed in black, someone who Milan had held like he was dissolving into her, like she was real flesh under his hungry hands, under a raging red light bulb. Someone who trapped pleasure in a small bathroom and pulled it out of herself, a roiling sweaty mess of alive on a bathroom counter. If she could do tonight, she could do anything—the rest of a life, for example.”(pp. 16-17)
Feyi is trying to move on. Five years ago, she and her husband were in a terrible car accident just a few months after their marriage. She survived, but now bears the weight of trauma and grief from the ordeal.
Since then she’s made many changes to heal herself. She has a studio to focus on her art, lives in Brooklyn with her best friend Joy and is trying new things to reclaim herself. Upon Joy’s insistence and Feyi’s own desire, she decides to put herself back out in the dating world. She wants to feel alive and find a way to numb her grief so that she can live. She’s 29, after all. Still young. Still gorgeous. She can do this.
For Feyi, what begins as just a simple hook-up at a house party to blow off steam and quiet the howling pit of sorrow within her soon escalates into a much grander experience. She makes new friends, starts dating again, and lands a dream placement at an art exhibition in the Caribbean coupled with a tropical vacation to boot. Life is good.
Until it gets complicated. Until Feyi finds herself falling for someone she’s not supposed to. Until that bubble of paradise in the Caribbean swells to a full rolling boil of passion that forces her to address her grief and insecurities. Until Feyi finally chooses herself and her happiness, does the work necessary to heal, accept her grief, and grab onto everything she wants and deserves, at any cost.
To be messy is to be human
And lawd is this book messy! From Chapter 1, line 1, Feyi is on her worst behaviour in the people’s party, egged on by her best friend Joy who lives for the chaos. As Feyi’s quest to discover a post-grief version of herself carries her on an adventure of a lifetime, the messiness grows and is delicious to read. While reading, I felt like Emezi was laughing to themselves throughout parts of the novel. I could feel their amusement threading through the pages, complimented by their masterful writing and richly emotive characters.
What I appreciated the most, however, is the way Emezi shows how grief, love and sensuality can intermingle in both beautiful and destructive ways. We see Feyi battling to accept only one version of herself at a time: the grieving widow or the sensual girl-boss artist. Only when she learns to accept that she is both of those people, simultaneously and constantly, does she finally get the room she needs to find healthy ways to manage her grief, desire, passion and guilt in ways that keep her alive and allow her to make romantic connections again. It makes for very saucy, and heart-wrenching reading.
A Mature Romance
I don’t read romance regularly, but You made a Fool of Death with your Beauty, may have changed my opinion on the genre, or at least introduced me to a niche of romance that I genuinely enjoy. This novel intentionally subverts some romance tropes that always felt problematic to me. But this subversion doesn’t take away from the sexiness and sensuality of the story. Quite the opposite. It leans into that sensuality, adding a lot of spice to the novel.
For example, I love that there were no blurred lines in the book, with characters running on assumptions of each other and what they wanted from their relationships, hookups, or both. Of course, there is a lot of pining and hiding feelings to ramp up the tension, but once those feelings are out in the open, the characters are very clear about what they want, and also willing to listen to their partners. It made for very delicious reading, showing that consent is very sexy.
Of course, there are many instances when communication breaks down. Feelings get hurt, and dreams and fantasies are shattered. Nevertheless, communication is still the backbone of the novel’s romance, whether it be at the height of passion, a fight, or in the quiet tender moments between characters. I’m impressed by the way Emezi managed to challenge romance conventions, show that communication and consent are sexy, and manage to write one of the most richly chaotic books I have ever read. They deserve all their accolades.
I only have two problems with the book. Firstly, the ending feels a bit abrupt. It doesn’t feel rushed necessarily, since the book does work its way toward a natural conclusion. But there are some loose ends and some elements I wanted more of. For example, one of the highlights of the book is Joy and Feyi’s friendship. I could read an entire book about them loving each other and being messy girlfriends. There is a subplot with Joy and her pursuit of happiness and love that I had wanted to see play out to its full conclusion. Joy hints at her happiness, and we can speculate about what happens after the book ends, but I wanted to see that happiness in full bloom.
Secondly, was also a character whose only purpose is to be a thorn in Feyi’s side. I wanted to see a little more of them, as the book does hint that they are a bit more complex than this final cut suggests. I can almost feel the places where more details about them and their life may have been excised for space or to focus more on Feyi and her relationships. Maybe if Emezi writes a sequel to the book, we may see these loose ends finally tied up, and this character fleshed out. Their flatness doesn’t take too much out of the novel, but I just wish we could see more of them.
Before we close…
I didn’t put this section in my original review because I needed to keep it SFW for Stabroek News, and some of my opinions jumped straight into spoiler territory, so if you want to save your brain to experience this book for yourself, PLEASE look away now!
That said, I adore Feyi’s arc in this story. Joy told her to put herself out there, and my girl really split herself in two. On the one hand, she tried to build walls around her heart, keeping her core secure because of her fear, grief and guilt after what happened with Jonah. But at the same time, almost ironically, she put her body out, trying to fuck her grief away, trying to bury her pain in pleasure. I loved how Akwaeke didn’t even try to mask this as Feyi’s intention. From the very first line of the book, when she was in that bathroom with Milan, Feyi’s duality of being was upfront and in our faces and it was both glorious to watch, but also upsetting because we knew where she came from. Watching her overcome these feelings and heal herself, learning to bring the split sides of herself and meld them together to become whole again was one of the most satisfying character arcs I have read thus far.
I also loved Feyi’s sensuality. I loved how playful she was, and loved how there was no one really trying to put a cap on her sensuality throughout the book. There was no one telling her she was too much, or two forward, or too bold or too much. She was just allowed to be herself throughout the book, with no restraints except the ones she imposed upon herself. Until, of course, she learned to overcome them.
Also, Akwaeke Emezi gets desire. My god. The sex in this book was, all puns intended, chef’s kiss good. Emezi writes about longing, lust, and the push and pull of desire so incredibly without making it…corny? Or when they DO make it corny, they are self-aware enough to admit the corniness. Again, we see this at the beginning of the book when Feyi and Milan hook up. But as I mentioned before, I don’t think I have ever read a book where sexual consent and communication were written so sexily. I cannot emphasise enough how impressed I am with Emezi’s work in this respect because it was just fantastic to me. Of course, my excitement about this aspect is partly because I don’t read romance much and I am out of the loop about modern conventions of the genre. Maybe this has been a trend in romance for a LONG time now, and I’m just catching up. Either way, I’m happy that Emezi was my gateway to this, and I will happily read every romance author they recommend.
Lastly, I noticed that there’s been a lot of hate for this novel, and I don’t really understand why. Emezi noted on Twitter that many people expected You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty to be akin to Freshwater or their other literary works. Other times, they noted that people are hating on Feyi for being too sensual or judging her for her choices. I’m not sure where all this moral handwringing is coming from, especially now that we’re supposed to be mature enough, at least in the artistic spheres, to talk more openly about sex, sensuality and their intersections with grief and trauma.
I loved the book because of its unfiltered explorationes of these intersections. I actually find it difficult to not see Feyi as a real person because all of her experiences seem like things I’ve seen hinted at in my friends’ WhatsApp statuses, or rumours I heard about women and girls while I was in A-Levels and University, or things I talk about with my friends now that I’m in my late 20s. Feyi, to me, is just a snapshot of life, and I enjoyed reading about her misadventures I guess because, well, she could be any of my friends right now or someone that my friends know. I doubt that this is just an experience unique to me and my friends alone, which is why I am very confused about people being up in arms about such a well-written and grounded novel.
You made a Fool of Death with your Beauty was a hot mess in all of the right ways. There was sexiness, atmosphere, and a cast of characters all longing for connection and happiness making a whole heap of trouble for themselves in their pursuit. For me, this book was a great place to start easing my way into Emezi’s work, and I look forward to reading their backlog of publications and future work. But for this Valentine’s Day, You made a Fool of Death with your Beauty is an excellent choice for anyone looking for a spicy romance fix. I promise you will love it.
Want to learn more about Akwaeke Emezi and their books? Check out these interviews they did with Trevor Noah, and Bolu Babalola.
Want more romance in time for Valentine’s Day? Check out these titles:
- Love in Colour edited by Bolu Babalola
- The Reluctant Royals series by Alyssa Cole
- The Brown Sisters Series by Talia Hibbert