Caught between two worlds

The Nigerian-American protagonist seems to have it all, but he harbours a secret

03 November 2019 - 00:00 By claire keeton
Picture: Caroline Cuse
Picture: Caroline Cuse

Published in the Sunday Times (03/11/2019)

Speak No Evil ****
Uzodinma Iweala
John Murray, R245

Niru, on track for Harvard, is a symbol of the American dream. Originally from Nigeria, he is the child of wealthy professionals and a top student and athlete. It seems nothing can trip him up. But he has a secret, which he must conceal from his religious parents and college track team. Only his friend Meredith at their private school in Washington, the somewhat neglected daughter of academics, gets a glimpse into this world on a snowy day when he accepts his first drink.

This is a piercing story, no holds barred.

"Everything is always life-threatening, Meredith says as the meteorologist on television frantically describes the snow that falls around us ... Do you want whisky? she asks before she disappears from the room."

Niru remembers what his model older brother OJ, in whose shadow he lives, would say: "The risks are too high, OJ tells me. You aren't like these people, he says, they can do things that you and I can't do. He never drank and his classmates loved him ... My teachers still call me by his name."

He defies OJ and his parents' advice on alcohol and reluctantly opens up to Meredith about being gay. Her reaction to his confidences sets off a cascade of events that have a profound - and ultimately irreversible - impact on their lives.

Uzodinma Iweala deftly explores what identity and coming of age mean in this slight novel: sexual, cultural, religious and racial identities woven together. He has a delicate touch despite dealing with such weighty themes.

The first part gives insight into Niru's mind and heart, and the latter into Meredith's, as everything unravels around them. But the axis of this story is the relationship between 18-year-old Niru and his father. The pair are caught between worlds in which they belong but also, in their own ways, rage against.

"Sometimes I stare at the family that owns me and I wish I were a different person, with white skin and the ability to tell my mother and my father, especially my father, to fuck off without consequences," he says.

Yet he cannot. When his father drags him off to Nigeria to purge him of his sinful homosexuality, Niru rejects Meredith's offer to stay in her home, understanding he does not feel comfortable in her world either.

Ultimately he does rebel, slowly, falling for a dancer who has chosen a freedom for which he longs.

The characters are poignant - even when they behave in unfathomable ways - and the universal issues underlying this plot threaten to, but do not, overwhelm it. A gripping story that draws one into its world.