Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala (Contemporary Novel, 2018).
This powerful and often engrossing novel is Iweala’s third novel. His first (Beasts of No Nation) was particularly and widely acclaimed, winning multiple awards and literary prizes. He’s a graduate of both Harvard University and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. He splits his time between New York City and Lagos, in his native Nigeria. The multiple life experiences this thumbnail bio hints at clearly inform the fascinating, sad yet riveting book (which is the first of his work that I’ve encountered).
The central character here is Niru, for most of his young life a somewhat privileged resident of Washington, DC. His parents are financially successful, especially his very driven businessman father. His parents are both from Nigeria, where the father grew up poor and ambitious while his mother’s family was comparatively well-off (and thought she was marrying below her station in life). In any case, his parents are both socially conservative Christians. So when teenaged Niru finally realizes he’s gay, it’s shocking to him (and outrages his father, especially).
His best friend at the swanky private school he attends (as a springboard to Harvard) is Meredith, a white American girl who pines for him to be more than a friend. But when he has to ‘come out’ to someone, she tries to be supportive (leading indirectly to a bitter confrontation with demanding, narrow-minded Daddy.
Niru finds himself dragged back to Nigeria for a sort of attempted reprograming courtesy his family’s church. Niru actually wants to not be gay, but he can’t deny his nature.
Back in the US, secrets build up inside him. Meredith’s frustrated desires lead to friction and then explosive anger between them, so he no longer has solace from that quarter.
About two-thirds of the way through his somewhat brief (207 page) novel, the book’s focus suddenly shifted to Meredith. This unexpected turn is surprisingly effective as the two careen to a personal shared disaster in which nasty assumptions lead to tragic and unneccesary violence that leaves Niru dead and Meredith overwhelmed by both grief and shame. Meredith’s wealthy but distant parents do all they can to cover-up the inconvenient truth about happened.
It all leads to an understated yet shattering climax, some years later, which shows the damage events have done to all concerned–yet allows Meredith to finally speak the truth.
In the process of this novel, Iweala capably reveals to us cross-generational and cultural misunderstandings from all quarters, and shows us the costs they can entail. It’s dramatic and genuine, heartbreakingly real.